New port director prefers crisp INS uniform to traditional suit and tie

March 15, 2001|By AARON CLAVERIE, Staff Writer

CALEXICO — Two bulletproof vests, not a blazer or cashmere sports coat, hang on the coat rack in Michael Freeman's office.

Freeman is the new port director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's three Imperial Valley ports of entry, two in Calexico and one in Andrade.

He has decided to forgo the traditional suit and ties of past directors for the crisp black-and-white uniform of an INS inspector.

"I have the option of wearing a uniform or a suit," Freeman, 35, said. "I prefer to wear a uniform."

He added: "I want the inspectors to feel that I am just like them. My badge says I'm an immigration inspector, just like theirs does. I want to be part of the operation, just like they are, even though I'm in a different position now."


Wednesday was his third day as port director. Freeman said he will continue to work inspections, as he has for the past 12 years.

"I still like to work inspections," Freeman said. "I'd like to work with the field inspectors and share my experience and guidance with them to help further their careers."

INS field inspectors are in charge of checking the nation of origin of the millions of people crossing the border every day.

They also work hand-in-hand with U.S. Customs to stamp out the flow of drugs, contraband and illegal immigrants into the U.S.

Freeman said one of the first things he will do as port director is attempt to improve the impression residents of Calexico and Mexico have of his 188 employees.

"I want to work on gaining the public trust of INS here in Calexico and the trust in our inspectors," Freeman said.

"I will make sure we treat every single one of our 40 million passengers with respect and dignity."

He doesn't want to open every single car trunk looking for drugs.

"We are the best highly trained group of individuals throughout the southwest border. We can identify potential smugglers with our interview skills and our keen sense of detection."

"We're not here to harass people," Freeman said.

In addition to improving the INS' image, Freeman will continue the work of former Port Director Diane Hinckley. She had been working on improving the northbound flow of traffic from Mexico into the 4-year-old Calexico East port.

Freeman said he hopes to build on the 38 percent increase in traffic the east port received last year.

He said he needs the help of Imperial Valley residents to make operations smoother and faster. In fact, he needs Valley residents to work for him.

"I was on TV two months ago begging people to take the (INS admissions) test. We have 25-35 positions open for inspectors," he said.

Freeman said once he gets more inspectors he can staff the east port without taking inspectors from the downtown Calexico port.

Inspectors at the downtown port conducted more than 28 million inspections last year while inspectors at the east port conducted 8 million.

The Andrade port's use dropped a little last year to 3.5 millions inspections.

The INS does not just conduct border inspections. Freeman said part of its job involves assisting U.S. Border Patrol and Mexican immigration agencies in removing non-citizens from the country.

On Wednesday he met with 35 Mexican immigration officials to coordinate a plan that will remove juvenile illegal immigrants from this country and deliver them back to their homes or a halfway house.

Mexican regulations do not allow the U.S. or Mexican immigration to just let juveniles go. They must be given back to their families or looked after in some way.

Freeman and the Mexican officials Wednesday discussed the resources that program uses.

The plan is for INS and Mexican officials to work in tandem to make sure youths are safely taken back over the border.

Freeman, raised in a military family that moved frequently, began his career at the Calexico Port of Entry on the lowest rung of the INS ladder in late 1988.

After marrying an El Centro woman in 1989, they were transferred to Detroit a year later.

"When we were in Detroit it was a total culture shock for my wife because she is an Imperial Valley native. For myself it was hard because it was a whole different type of work than I was used to," he said.

In Detroit, he checked documents of passengers disembarking from airplanes.

"I probably interviewed people from 50 to 60 countries a day," he said.

In 1992 Freeman received the first promotion of his career. For five years he supervised a division of the Detroit operations until he returned to Calexico in 1997.

It was here he began to establish himself as a fair and honest supervisor, he said.

His main responsibilities were supervising the operations at the Calexico airport and the Andrade Port of Entry.

When Hinckley was hired in July 1999 as port director, she promoted Freeman to be her deputy director.

After his promotion to port director was made official this Monday, Freeman has the position he hoped for.

"This has been the goal in my short 12-year career — to eventually be a port director."

Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419.

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