Harold Ezell says he simply wants the nation's lawmakers to view firsthand the "invasion" of illegal aliens.
So the controversial western commissioner for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services has sent invitations to congressmen and U.S. senators from the Western states to be his guests on nighttime tours of the U.S.-Mexico border, beginning this week.
"The problem (illegal immigration) is so severe that they need to see it firsthand," Ezell said, explaining why he issued the written invitations last week to members of Congress from California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii.
To date, only U.S. Rep. Bill Lowery (R-San Diego) and staff members from two other congressional offices have accepted spots on the three tours scheduled for Wednesday, Friday and Sept. 3.
But critics say that Ezell is using the tours to allow him to play politics with the issue of immigration.
"He's politicking on taxpayers' money," said Herman Baca, chairman of the Committee on Chicano Rights, a San Diego group that monitors immigration issues.
"If he wants to politic, let him politic on his own nickel, not on the taxpayers'," said Baca, who added that he will call for an investigation of Ezell's tactics. "What is this, Disneyland?"
In the past, Ezell has been accused of staging publicity stunts--including highly publicized raids of job sites where illegal aliens were employed--to expound his views on illegal immigration.
Ezell's nighttime border tours are scheduled during the current three-week congressional recess. After Congress reconvenes Sept. 8, the House is expected to consider several pieces of long-pending legislation designed to slow the flow of illegal immigrants. The Senate has already passed such legislation.
Ezell is a vocal supporter of highly controversial proposals that would impose fines and other sanctions against employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens. Critics say such a plan would be unworkable and would likely increase discrimination against all Latinos.
Although Ezell does not hide his desire to influence the upcoming debate, he noted that congressmen attending the tours are free to vote as they wish.
"They should vote with their consciences," he said.
Despite the criticism, the commissioner and other immigration officials say the tours are appropriate.
"We're quite concerned that uninformed congressmen might not favor legislation because they're not aware of . . . the magnitude of illegal aliens and the impact they're having down there," said John Belluardo, director of congressional and public affairs for the regional INS office in Los Angeles.
Interest in the tours has been minimal, but Ezell says he hopes more members will sign on this week. A similar congressional tour in May also elicited a "disappointing" turnout, he noted.