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PORTRAITS / JOSEPH N. BELL

INS's Ezell--He's Hard to Pigeonhole

October 21, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

In the summer of 1987, an East Los Angeles priest led 200 parishioners on a crusade to the Laguna Hills home of Harold Ezell, western regional commissioner for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

In surroundings as foreign to their own living conditions as a distant planet, the demonstrators sang hymns and prayed for 2 hours that they might have a grace period to prevent their families from being divided by deportation. They chose Ezell's home for their demonstration because over the past few years he has come to symbolize--more than any other individual--the hard-line treatment of illegal aliens.

He wasn't there that day. "We were notified ahead of time that they were coming," says Ezell's wife, Lee, "so I left notes in our neighbors' mailboxes about what was going to happen, and then I took him to the mall."

It may have been one of the few times in his life that Harold Ezell deliberately avoided a confrontation.

Ezell probably makes the newspapers more frequently than any other public official in Orange County--almost always negatively. Hardly a month passes that someone isn't trying to get him fired, usually after published quotes similar to his recent charge that the reports of death threats to Central American political refugees being given sanctuary in Southland churches are "part of an orchestrated PR campaign." The outrage after that one was palpable. One of the milder comments came from one church leader who called his remarks "the most insensitive response I could imagine from anyone."

Admittedly, hostility goes with Ezell's job territory, but he also manages to help it along, often quite creatively. He can't do anything about the fact that he was the first political appointee in this job in two decades or that he came to it after 11 years as an executive of Wienerschnitzel International, both looked on by his opponents with derision as qualifications for the job he now holds. But his working style of meeting controversy frontally--and often with painful candor--is both disarming and distressing, enough so that his boss in Washington admitted that he found some of Ezell's public statements "too strong" and accordingly directed him to "show better care in choosing his words."

But that's like telling Tommy Lasorda to play it cool. One of Ezell's more fascinating--and frequently infuriating--attributes is that he's almost impossible to pigeonhole. One week he is conducting busloads of Kiwanians on tours of the border area and preaching hard-line enforcement, and the next week he's out putting on shows to get aliens to sign up for amnesty. He's a constantly moving target, but unlike many public officials who have to deal with a frequently hostile image, he never ducks a confrontation, is never hard to find, and never avoids expressing an opinion.

"It sets my teeth on edge," he said, "whenever I hear a public official say, 'No comment.' "

He showed up at an Irvine restaurant with his warm and attractive wife en route to a ceremony at the Crystal Cathedral at which Religious Heritage of America would honor the Ezells with its California Community Award for "demonstrating the highest ideals of America's religious heritage."

He doesn't fit the hard-liner image very snugly. He's chunky with a generous head of curly hair, an almost cherubic face, rimless eyeglasses and a manner of speaking that vacillates between diffidence, passion and humor, all coated with a heavy layer of self-assurance.

We talked a few days after Ezell was in the headlines once again because one of his agents had gone into a Catholic church in Orange during Mass to capture two illegal aliens.

Ezell sighed. "My agent was Hispanic and Catholic. He was also very young. He had his hands on both of them when they hit the door of the church. He followed them inside and asked them to step outside with him when they said they had no papers. It was all over in less than 60 seconds, and he still insists that no Mass was going on. I was at a staff meeting, and I knew as soon as I got the call it was going to hit the fan.

"This hasn't happened before, and I don't expect it to happen again. The inexperience on the part of the agent contributed to it, but it also made me realize that I needed specific guidelines for every situation. And that will be done."

(The guidelines--including tough restrictions on entering churches--were announced earlier this week.)

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