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Reflections of a former Customs inspector…

I wrote this article soon after I began a three-year assignment, 1983-1986, at U.S. Customs Headquarters in Washington, D.C. It was published in the 1984 fall issue of Customs Today, the official magazine of the U.S. Customs Service. The Customs Service has changed dramatically since that time. The number of ports on the southern border may have changed, some added and some deleted, and staffing has been increased and titles have changed, but the mission of Customs inspectors has not changed—I made no effort to reflect the changes in the article for this posting. It is reproduced here exactly as it appeared in the 1984 winter issue of Customs Today. Click here for an article published in the winter of 1986.

Reflections of a former inspector

This year some 300 million people will enter the United states. Whether they enter by air, land or sea each will be greeted by a uniformed Customs inspector. There are 5,000 of us covering the international airports and scattered along 96,000 miles of land and sea borders. Each year we clear for entry travelers whose numbers far surpass the total population of the United States. Expediting the entry of so many people leaves little time to visit, and everything must be strictly business. In this article I want to say some things that the lack of time usually prohibits, things that I hope will promote a better understanding of the Customs Service—its mission, its people and its history.

Our mission is to protect the revenue, industries, economy and environment of the United States, a large order by any standard. In addition to Customs statutes and state and local laws, we enforce more than 400 provisions of laws from 40 other federal agencies. We realize that very few travelers are lawbreakers, and of those few only a minute fraction break the law intentionally. Unfortunately, whether the law is broken intentionally or inadvertently, the lawbreaker cannot be identified by appearance, occupation or position in the community.

Since we cannot visually single out the offenders, completely innocent persons are often caused some degree of inconvenience on their entry into the United States. Such people sometimes feel that they are being checked because we suspect them of smuggling, that we are accusing them of dealing in illicit drugs and narcotics. In most cases we are simply trying to protect them. Our questions and our inspections may reveal something they have overlooked in their declarations or something they may have felt it unnecessary to declare, something that could adversely affect their health, their business interests or their environment.

Our job requires us to be able to meet and deal effectively with persons of widely divergent backgrounds. That divergence  includes the well known and the unknown, the rich and the poor and the in-between. It includes kings and consorts, consuls, clergy, congressmen and cabinet members. It includes priests, popes, premiers, presidents, pimps, prostitutes and fugitives from justice, and thieves, rapists and murderers. It includes drug dealers and pushers, addicts, derelicts and drunks. We are required to meet and deal effectively with people of every conceivable occupation, education level and age, race, religion, creed, color, nationality, ethnicity, ideological bent and political affiliation.

In each of these contacts our employer demands that we be professional, firm, fair and courteous. Courtesy is defined as being “pleasant, polite, respectful, considerate, helpful and patient, and the mandate for courtesy insists on strict adherence under difficult conditions and personal stress, and in the face of extreme provocation. In its efforts to inculcate such moral excellence The Customs Service continually stresses professionalism, courtesy and objectivity.

There are undoubtedly times that we lose our objectivity in conducting an inspection. We bring to the job our private problems, fears, frustrations, aspirations and prejudices, and these sometimes surface unbidden. However, we face the same characteristics in the people with whom we deal. The difference, of course, is that our conduct is officially mandated and proscribed, while they are free to vent their feelings and express their opinions with virtually no restrictions on attitude or language. We cannot respond in kind. They complain to our superiors and their complaints are heard. Investigations are conducted and if warranted, corrective and sometimes disciplinary actions are taken. We have no such recourse available to us.

We consider complaints, to a certain degree, to be an inevitable part of our job. People complain in order to correct a wrong, either real or imagined, and sometimes they complain in an effort to impress or to intimidate. We realize that most complaints are neither vindictive nor malicious, and simply require assurance that the situation is being investigated to determine if a problem exists and if so, assurance that corrective action will be taken to correct the problem.

Most of us have also accepted the fact that verbal abuse is part of the job, a hazard of the occupation. We usually manage to maintain at least a thin veneer of courtesy and patience through frequent and extreme instances of name-calling and suggestions, very explicit, on what we should do with our badge, and in some instances offers are made to do it for us.

That badge, our Service tells us, is best worn with some degree of humility, a dictate noble in concept but not easily followed. It is difficult to feel humble when so much pride is present—pride in being allowed to represent our nation t its borders, pride in being the first line of defense against the flow of illegal drugs and narcotics, and pride in the traditions and rich heritage of the United States Customs Service.

Our heritage began just fifteen years after this nation declared its independence. On July 4, 1979 George Washington signed the Tariff Act, and Customs was born. In the first year of operation our collectors raised $2 million, and by 1835 had made the nation debt free. For 125 years, until the federal income tax act was passed, Customs revenue was virtually the sole source of income for the United States.

The collection of Customs revenue has been entrusted to some illustrious Americans. John Lamb, hero of the battle of Fort Ticonderoga, was an early collector, as was the poet Edwin Arlington Robinson. Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Chester Arthur, twenty-first president of the United States, and Pat Garrett, the man that ended the career—and life—of Billy the Kid, Matthew Henson who, with Admiral Byrd, planted the U.S. flag at the North Pole in 1909—all served ably in the United States Customs Service.

Since their time we have grown with the nation. The Customs Service now has some 15,000 dedicated employees distributed among seven regions, 45 districts, 300 ports of entry at our nation’s international airports and land and sea borders, and foreign field offices in ten major world capitals. Since 1955 our total work force has doubled, but has in no way kept pace with a workload that has quadrupled and is still expanding.

With a workload of such magnitude, it is inevitable that some detentions and searches of completely innocent persons will occur. It is probably also inevitable that some of our actions will be construed as harassment. They are not. We are professional law enforcement officers and direct representatives of our government, and we do not take our responsibilities lightly. In accomplishing our mission we try to consider peoples’ feelings and gain their willing cooperation. We attempt to deal with them objectively and fairly. We are not always successful.

We are sometimes told by persons dissatisfied with their inspection that they pay our salaries, and that without them we would not have a job. We freely acknowledge those truths. American taxpayers do indeed pay our salaries, and our jobs exist because the tax payers, through their elected representatives, feel that we are needed. We are thus indebted and ask only that they cooperate fully to assist us in doing the job for which they hired us—collecting the revenue and protecting their interests.

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Hershel M. (Mike) Dyer is a Program Officer in the Office of Inspection Control, Office of Inspectional Liaison at Headquarters. He spent 12 years as an inspector and supervisory inspector on the Southwest Border.

 
 

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A surgical solution to illegal immigration . . .

Our land border with Mexico cannot be closed.

The military could link hands from Brownsville, Texas to San Diego, California and the line would not slow the illegal entries. They will go under, over, through or around any barrier constructed, living or otherwise, by land, sea and air, and through tunnels.

Anyone who has lived or worked on the border for any significant length of time knows the border cannot be closed. I worked on the Texas-Mexico border for 12 years, with extended assignments at three land border ports as a Customs inspector trainee, journeyman and supervisor, and in a three-year stint at Customs Headquarters I covered every port on the Mexican border (also most international airports, seaports and land crossings on our border with Canada).

I know the border cannot be closed.

Bill O’Reilly at Fox News believes the border can be closed. He’s wrong—the border cannot be closed (he hasn’t asked me about this, but I would be glad to brief him).

I began my 26-year career with the United States Customs Service at the international border crossing in Progreso, a small town in the Rio Grande Valley a few miles south of Weslaco, Texas. The port director at Progreso had, in my opinion, a sure-fire way to dry up the flood of illegal immigrants—such persons have historically been called wet-backs, a highly descriptive term that has fallen prey to the current atmosphere of political correctness. I plan to discuss the term in a subsequent posting.

The then-port director at Progreso suggested that, regardless of nationality or country of origin, one finger be removed from the illegal immigrant the first time he (or she) is intercepted, then return him (or her) to Mexico, and remove another finger if that person is again intercepted entering our country illegally. If adopted, his suggestion would result in numerous nine-fingered illegals, significantly fewer eight-fingered, and virtually none with only seven fingers.

My only suggestion to his plan at that time was to remove the middle finger of one hand for the first offense and the middle finger of the other hand for the second offense, then another finger for the next illegal crossing, etc., etc. My rationale for that sequence was, of course, intended to prevent the offender from flipping the bird at any US federal officer in any future encounter. This led to the development of Operation FRET (Finger Removal Each Time).

I have since fleshed out my plan to control unauthorized immigration, and have also developed a plan to prevent members of Congress from growing old and rich in the “service” of their country. To that end I offer the following concepts: Operation FRET to control illegal immigration, and Operation OFFER to clear out some, perhaps most, of the deadwood in our Senate and our House of Representatives. Operation OFFER, over time, might even clear out all the deadwood and ensure that none of it reappears in Congress.

Operation FRET (Finger Removal Each Time) should not be confused with the acronym for fluorescence resonance energy transfer, a condition related to fluorescent lighting. Operation FRET is my term for a system that, if properly applied, could staunch the flow of unauthorized entries across our national borders. The system is suggested to control entries from Mexico, but to avoid any semblance of bias it should probably be instituted along our northern border as well, and for consistency the system must apply to illegal entries at any point in the nation, whether by land, sea or air.

Operation OFFER (One Finger For Each Re-election) is recommended initially for elections to our Senate and our House of Representatives, but the concept can be applied effectively to lesser elections, ranging from local school boards up to gubernatorial races. I would oppose any suggestion to make Operation OFFEE retroactive for sitting electees—now that would really be cruel!

I would also oppose any suggestion to extend Operation OFFEE to the highest elected office in the land—that worthy needs more fingers, not fewer, to accomplish his complex duties and responsibilities. Besides, any hint of such a suggestion, whether satire or otherwise, would bring down on the suggester the accumulative weight and heat of every national, state and local law enforcement agency.

A fellow blogger made these comments on my suggestion concerning digit removals for illegal immigrants, and his comments inspired me to develop Operation OFFER:

I think your immigration penalty may be a tad cruel.

Could we, however, use it for membership in Congress?

Yes, we can! (I must admit that I pilfered that slogan from the 2008 presidential campaign). If the OFFER concept (One Finger Removal Each Re-election) became law, it’s doubtful that we would ever have more than a handful (so to speak) of nine-fingered senators or representatives, even fewer with only eight fingers and probably none with three fingers missing. I assume the writer meant to remove one finger on the initial election to Congress, whether to the Senate or to the House of Representatives, and the second on the first re-election, etc. And I also assume the same sequence (middle fingers first) would apply to the members of Congress. However, I feel that the system should apply to re-elections only. Under Operation FRET, the illegal immigrant has broken federal law, while the first term electee to Congress has broken no laws. Operation OFFER would ensure that no senator or representative would serve more than one term unless, of course, they would be willing to sacrifice a digit in order to remain on the federal dole and continue feathering their nest—not likely, that.

It is doubtful that the law could be made retroactive, principally because many of the senators and representatives would be minus all fingers as well as both thumbs. And there is actually the possibility, albeit it very remote, that reelections to the Senate and the House of Representatives would be eliminated—one can only dream.

I would oppose any suggestion to make Operation OFFER retroactive for sitting electees—now that would really be cruel! I would also oppose any suggestion to extend Operation OFFER to the highest elected office in the land—that worthy needs more fingers, not fewer, to accomplish his complex duties and responsibilities. And any such suggestion, whether satire or otherwise,  would bring down on the suggester the accumulative weight and heat of every national, state and local law enforcement agency in the nation.

A special note for anyone who peruses (reads) this posting and believes it, or is repulsed by it, or considers it cruel and un-American:

Hey, lighten up!

This is satire and nothing more—no investigation by the AFRC (Anti-Finger-Removal Czar) is needed, nor do we need a BOLO for international border crossers with fingers missing from either hand, specifically middle fingers.

Our newspapers, novels, movies and television presentations are saturated with crime reports, either true or fictional, so everyone should know the meaning of BOLO. However, this explanation is provided for the edification (enlightenment) of the three persons (estimated) in our population of 330 million (estimated) that do not know:

BOLO is an acronym for Be On Look Out (for). Don’t you just abhor (hate) it when someone uses a word, whether verbal (spoken) or written, then immediately defines (explains) it in the belief that the reader lacks eruditeness (having great knowledge) and won’t know the word’s meaning?

I also hate it when someone does that, whether speaking or writing.

I completely understand, and I feel your pain.

 
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Posted by on January 10, 2010 in Humor, law enforcement, politics

 

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