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Latino Customs Agents Battle for Better Job Status

Times Staff Writer

Alfonso Rivera, a criminal investigator with the U. S. Customs Service in San Diego, said he was tired of working for Anglo bosses with “an open-door policy and a closed mind.” In January, he joined 10 other veteran Latino agents and inspectors from throughout the country in filing an unfair-discrimination lawsuit against the agency.

Rivera, a 17-year veteran of the Customs Service, said “the policy of discrimination should have been challenged a long, long time ago.” Five of the 11 plaintiffs in the suit work in San Diego.

In addition to Rivera, the plaintiffs include two other investigators working out of the San Diego office of the special agent in charge, and two inspectors who work at the Otay and San Ysidro ports of entry.

The complaint, which was filed in U. S. District Court in Washington, alleges that, since about 1980, when the Reagan Administration took power, customs officials “have actively sought to reduce the number of Hispanic employees at upper-level management.”

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As an example, attorneys for the agents and inspectors said that, in 1980, nine Latinos with a GS-15 job rating were working for the Customs Service. Now there are only three, they said. Of the 49 Senior Executive Service employees with the agency, none is Latino, the attorneys said. By contrast, 25% off all employees at entry-level positions are Latino, according to the suit.

The Latino employees are represented by attorneys from the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) office in Chicago. The complaint names 27 defendants, including Nicholas Brady, who, as secretary of the Treasury, administers the Customs Service; William Von Raab, commissioner of the Customs Service, and Quintin L. Villanueva Jr., regional commissioner for the Pacific region.

Dennis Shimkowski, customs spokesman in Washington, said officials will not comment on the lawsuit while it is pending.

MALDEF attorney Ruben Castillo said the experiences and complaints of the Latino customs employees in San Diego are representative of the complaints heard from other Latinos throughout the country. He is waiting for the court to certify the complaint as a class-action lawsuit so MALDEF can represent the about 1,763 Latinos in the Customs Service, which has 15,632 employees, he said.

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Rivera, 48, a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, is especially vocal in his allegations of unfair treatment. Much of his criticism is directed at Kenneth Ingleby, special agent in charge of the Customs Service’s San Diego office of criminal investigations. Ingleby, who is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, failed to return several phone calls to his office.

According to Rivera and others interviewed, Ingleby frequently displays favored treatment toward Anglo agents. They also said that, like other customs supervisors throughout the Southwest, supervisors in the San Diego office of criminal investigations use Spanish-speaking agents in ways that restrict their opportunities for promotion.

Spanish-speaking agents said that being bilingual is often a liability rather than an asset. The lawsuit alleges that Latino agents are routinely assigned to mundane duties such as listening in on wiretaps involving Spanish-speaking defendants, rather than to cases that provide opportunities for career enhancement.

“These (wiretap) assignments are involuntary, involve unusually long hours . . . and result in the reassignment of career-enhancing cases to non-Hispanic employees,” the lawsuit says. " . . . The monitoring of Spanish-language wiretaps is not rewarded with benefits or promotions.”

“After the wiretap is done, you get an ‘attaboy’ letter and are sent home. . . . The Anglo agents get all the glory and are promoted,” Rivera said.

Customs employees said their hopes for a successful lawsuit were buoyed by a federal judge’s ruling last fall in a similar suit brought by Latino FBI agents against that agency. After a lengthy trial, the judge ruled that the FBI systematically discriminated against Latino agents.

Many of Same Complaints

In the suit, Latino FBI agents lodged many of the same complaints echoed by customs investigators and inspectors. They complained about being assigned to Spanish-language wiretap assignments, testifying that those assignments are among the most tedious for FBI agents.

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Some of the customs agents interviewed said they expect reprisals as a result of initiating the lawsuit. Richard Medina, an internal affairs supervisor working out of Ingleby’s office, was recently transferred to Washington for temporary duty. Medina, who is a plaintiff in the suit and a critic of Ingleby’s management style, was reassigned to Washington for 120 days for “attitudinal adjustment,” said an Anglo agent who requested anonymity.

“All of these people in San Diego and elsewhere have a lot of courage putting their names on a lawsuit against their employer,” said attorney Castillo. “Richard’s transfer is the type of transfer that concerns us. We see a pattern of transfers like these, which are used to hurt the progression of Hispanics in the Customs Service.”

The lawsuit also charges that Latinos are concentrated in “Hispanic areas” of the Southwest, Pacific Coast and the Southeast, namely Miami. It says that, while these three geographical areas account for 44% of the total customs work force, 83% of all Latino employees are assigned to the three areas.

Latinos “are not considered for promotion in non-Hispanic areas” such as the U. S.-Canada border, the suit alleges.

Turned Down Twice

Charles Mazon, 44 and a customs inspector supervisor at Otay Mesa, has worked for the agency 17 years and was the first Latino to be named port director at Tecate. He said he was twice rejected for promotions to jobs at the Washington-Canada border. On both occasions, the positions were filled by lower-ranking Anglo inspectors, he said.

“My first application was for a position at Port Angeles, Wash., where there was a vacancy for a GS-11 port director. It was a merit promotion; I was a GS-11 at the time . . . but I was not selected. A GS-9 inspector who was Anglo was selected instead,” Mazon said.

“The following year, in 1986, I applied for two GS-11 openings in Vancouver. I was up for GS-12 at the time, so I was willing to take the demotion. But I was bypassed again, and two lower-level inspectors were selected. One was Anglo, and I’m not sure about the other,” he said.

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Mazon said he filed two equal-employment-opportunity complaints with the Customs Service as a result of being turned down for the three positions, but has yet to hear from the agency.

Mazon, who is looked to for leadership by other Latino customs inspectors at the San Ysidro and Otay ports, said each disappointment has left a bitter aftertaste with his family.

“We don’t want special treatment. The only thing that we want is a fair shake. That’s all we ask,” he said.

Some Anglo Support

The agents and inspectors have received support from some Anglo colleagues, Mazon said, and some of them have offered to testify on their behalf.

“I’ve gotten calls of support from Anglo agents in Denver and other places. There’s a good possibility that some Anglo supervisors will testify for us,” he said.

Fred Leslie, 50, is an equal-employment counselor for customs inspectors at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. The 16-year veteran of the Customs Service said he is working with district director Allan Rappoport to increase the number of Latino inspectors at San Ysidro.

“We have almost 285 inspectors in San Ysidro, but only about 52 are Hispanic,” Leslie said.

The San Ysidro port was “full of bigotry” when he arrived in 1978, after serving at the Canal Zone, Leslie said. The dissatisfaction among Latino inspectors came to a head in 1983, when they banded together to file a class-action complaint with Rappoport.

“In 1983, the port director promoted three Anglo supervisors, when the No. 1 person on the list was an Hispanic,” Leslie said. “When we complained, he told us that, if we wanted to get promoted, we could go work at the Calexico port,” Leslie said.

Not Troubled

The Latino inspectors took their complaints to Rappoport, who subsequently agreed to promote three Latino supervisors.

Rappoport, who is not a defendant in the lawsuit, said he is not troubled by Mazon and Inspector Victor Sanchez’s involvement in the lawsuit.

“I know they’re ventilating their concerns. . . . You’re not going to make everybody happy all the time, so why take it personally? My own personal reputation is one who is not a biased person,” Rappoport said. ". . . No group of people has come to me and told me there are serious problems here. . . . Our policy here is to recruit quality people, not just fill numbers. I try not to promote someone just because of race.”

30% Latino

Rappoport said that, according to a recent in-house survey, 30% of all employees in his district are Latino. He also denied charges that Latinos are under-represented in the supervisorial ranks at the San Ysidro and Otay ports of entry. According to Rappoport’s figures, two of the four GS-13 supervisors at both ports are Latinos, and four of 17 GS-12 supervisors, or 24%, are Latinos, as are nine of 39, or 23%, GS-11 employees.

The total representation of Latinos in these ranks is higher than the 13.4% representation in the local civilian work force, he said.

Castillo said that MALDEF’s research shows that, more often than not, the Customs Service’s employee-promotion policy “does not reflect what other agencies and companies are doing, namely promoting Hispanics into supervisorial and management roles.”

“We allege that this is intentional. It doesn’t represent equal employment opportunity,” said Castillo, a former federal prosecutor in Chicago.

Subjected to Slurs

Meanwhile, Inspector Robert Ramirez, 42, a 13-year customs veteran, said Latino agents are commonly subjected to racial slurs from non-Latinos.

“There are many comments made by my peers that really bother me. I’ve heard them say that we are nothing but greasers or dumb Mexicans,” said Ramirez, who also works as a recruiter for customs inspectors.

Still, not all Latino agents and inspectors are supporting the lawsuit. Rivera and Mazon said that at least one local man who was a party to the complaint is having second thoughts about proceeding.

“They’re dangling a carrot in front of him, promising him a promotion. Now he says that he doesn’t want to do anything to hurt his chances of moving up,” Rivera said.

Other Latinos do not want to get involved because they are new employees and on probation, and still others are afraid of retribution, Mazon said. And many of the younger Latinos who are not part of the lawsuit “are afraid of what their Anglo friends are going to say about them,” he said.

As an equal-employment counselor and veteran of many discrimination battles, Leslie said he is saddened by the younger agents’ attitude.

“These guys are following in our footsteps,” he said. “The pattern that we set now with this lawsuit is the pattern that they’re going to follow. These guys don’t realize that we’re trying to open doors for them--doors that have been closed to us for many years.”


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