The legal fallout from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s decision to send mostly Venezuelan asylum-seekers to Martha’s Vineyard continues this week, with questions swirling over the role of a mysterious recruiter named Perla in orchestrating the politicized journey. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Immigration: Defining ‘Us’ and ‘Them,’” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discuss how partisan interests and racial prejudices have long leaked into immigration policy, from the exclusionary “free white men” clause of the 1790s Naturalization Acts to the hemispheric quotas of the 1965 Hart-Celler Act. In the 1980s and 1990s, California immigration official Harold Ezell dramatically exemplified the politicization of immigration policy – and the accompanying pattern of anti-democratic behavior. 

Harold Ezell was the son of an Assembly of God preacher from Wilmington, California, a Los Angeles suburb. He started his career as a church furniture salesman, before eventually jumping ship to become a massively successful corporate Vice President at locally-based hot dog fast food chain Wienerschnitzel

A passionate Reagan volunteer in 1980, Ezell made another dramatic pivot in 1983 to become the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) Commissioner for the whole Western Region – California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii and Guam. He was the first non-career INS official to serve in the role. Suddenly, he oversaw 3,000 immigration officials and a $150 million budget. 

Early in his six-year tenure, Ezell began making waves for his camera-heavy raids against factories employing undocumented immigrants and on popular border-crossings, often riding in Dodge Ram Charger “war wagons.” The raids could result in 3,000 migrant arrests over the course of a day. After one such raid in northern San Diego County, Ezell lined up the detainees on Interstate 5 and told the press, “This is what we need to do more.” 

He openly battled churches that provided sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, even putting a wire on an informant at a Phoenix Presybterian church – the first time that the government had ever wiretapped a public church service. 

While Ezell’s politics may have appeared rather simple and zealous, he fashioned himself as a more complex, modern-day Lincoln Republican, going so far as to collect massive amounts of Lincolnian memorabilia. “Lincoln never changed his story about the evils of slavery. He never compromised. And I respect that. I think that’s why people may not like me—because I tell what I believe is right,” he later told the Los Angeles Times. His iconoclastic interpretations of history extended back before the nation’s founding; “The Indians had bad immigration laws,” read one bumper sticker in Ezell’s office. 

Notwithstanding the Lincoln comparison, community groups and politicians were increasingly disturbed by Ezell’s rhetoric and tactics. In May 1985, Ezell controversially defended an INS agent who had shot and wounded a 12-year-old boy from Tijuana at the Southern border, holding a high-profile press conference saying – with an investigation still ongoing – that the agent had been in “grave danger” and that he was “standing behind” the agent. 

Ezell also invited lawmakers to come with him on his raids, a move that activists criticized as partisan. “He’s politicking on taxpayers’ money,” said Herman Baca, the chairman of the San Diego-based Committee on Chicano Rights. “What is this, Disneyland?” 

Ezell’s utterances on the raids also turned heads. Democratic Arizona Senator Dennis DeConcini claimed in an official complaint to INS Commissioner Alan C. Nelson that Ezell had said, “We can go out and chase some wets” during an Arizona border raid – an abbreviation of a racial slur.

Democratic Senator Alan Cranston also called for Ezell’s ouster in January 1986, after Ezell said of undocumented migrants to TIME Magazine and other press outlets, “If you can catch ’em, clean ’em and fry ’em.” 

Ezell continuously denied that he was a bigot. “’The one thing that was unfair, that hurt me personally, was the inference that I was racist in any way,” he told United Press International  over the furor surrounding his “fry ‘em” remark. “Our people are not cold, heartless bureaucrats,” he continued. “We’re not against illegal immigrants; we’re just against illegal immigration.” 

His walk-backs worked, to some degree. After he clarified that he was talking specifically of migrants who had committed violent felonies, one reporter wrote a letter apologizing for taking the comment out of context. Ezell sent the apology to his friend, the constantly-maligned Attorney General Ed Meese

Ezell recounted Meese’s reaction: “Ed said, ‘I don’t believe this. If there’s one person who gets as much flak as me, it’s you. And I’ve never gotten a letter of apology.’”

Ezell also consistently referenced his diverse upbringing as evidence of his egalitarianism,  assuring the Washington Post, “You can’t grow up in Wilmington, which is 70, 80 percent Hispanic, and not understand all people are the same.” 

He soon got an opportunity to complicate his hard-line image. On November 6th, 1986, President Reagan signed the Immigration and Reform Act of 1986. A compromise with congressional Democrats, the law targeted employers who hired undocumented workers, but provided amnesty to most undocumented immigrants in the U.S. – an estimated 3.9 million people. 

Amnesty applicants had to apply by May 4th, 1988. As the deadline approached, applications were hardly more than half of the expectation – a combination of messaging issues, complicated forms, and a filing backlog. 

Ezell waded into the center of the crisis, using his celebrity to spread the word. He made up to three appearances a day at Polynesian pig roasts, Chinese New Year’s parades, and Mexican fiestas. He started a radio show called Trio Amnestia with his deputy and Los Angeles Spanish talk radio station KTNQ DJ Luis Roberto Gonzalez, nicknamed El Tigre.

Ezell’s successful work in the amnesty program was short-lived. In 1988, he became the subject of scandal when he attended a party at the Honolulu home of deposed Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, who – in addition to standing accused of human rights violations back in Manila – was under investigation in New York for stealing millions from the Philippine government and spending it on American real estate. While not patently illegal to attend the gathering, Ezell led a videotaped prayer pleading for Marcos’ return to Manila, which would have violated State Department policy. 

Ezell thus resigned in 1989, but quickly reemerged as leader of the Ezell Group, a company that assisted foreign high-net-worth individuals – primarily in Southeast Asia – to immigrate to the United States. ”I believe we’ve done a great job with boat people, and I think that a few yacht people are not going to hurt America,” Ezell said in defense of his new venture. 

Then, in early 1994, Ezell reemerged in the political arena. Republican California Governor and immigration hardliner Pete Wilson was up for re-election against Kathleen Brown, the Democratic State Treasurer and part of a family gubernatorial dynasty that included her father Pat and her brother Jerry. 

Wilson, sensing the need for a catalyzing issue, brought in Ezell to help construct and to heavily and publicly promote Proposition 187, or the “Save Our State” initiative, which would have denied public benefits to undocumented immigrants, including barring children from enrolling in public school and denying medical beyond life-saving interventions. The referendum was slated to be judged on the same November 1994 ballot as Wilson’s re-election bid and that of Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. 

Ezell acknowledged that the education ban was patently unconstitutional – the 1982 Supreme Court decision in Plyler v. Doe held that denying undocumented children schooling violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Ezell hoped, however, that the law could push the Court to review the issue. 

In late September, 50 protestors gathered in front of the Ezell Group’s Newport Beach office. Ezell reacted dismissively: “I first heard about [the protest] when I heard somebody singing in Spanish outside my window,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I think they should do that every day all over the state, because I think that’s going to bring more people out to vote.” 

Three weeks later, however, Ezell was less cavalier when twelve activists interrupted his lunch at the Sportsman’s Lodge Hotel banquet room in Studio City, where he was speaking to the Encino Republican Women Federated group about the merits of Prop. 187. Ezell called the protestors “savages,” said that they “acted like a bunch of animals,” and signaled his intention to decline all subsequent speaking engagements leading up to the election. 

“He is a coyote for rich people,” said Father Pat Murphy, a protestor and Sun Valley clergyman, referencing Ezell’s lucrative immigration consulting business. “Why doesn’t he help any poor people?” 

As Ezell receded from the spotlight, national Democrats emerged to criticize Prop. 187. On October 21st, two weeks pre-election, Feinstein vocally condemned Prop. 187 before the Commonwealth Club of California. “I will not support Proposition 187,” she told the Club’s members. “It could cost me votes, possibly the election, but I do not believe it will work.”

Feinstein’s concern over the political consequence of opposing the Proposition was not unwarranted; her opponent, the Republican Santa Barbara-based merchant banker Michael Huffington, supported Prop. 187 and had sunk $28 million of his own capital into the tight race.

President Clinton also weighed in on the same day, telling a White House press conference that he was particularly concerned about Prop. 187’s impact on children: “If you kick children out of the health clinics, you may run the risk of causing health problems for the general California population. If you say ‘kids have got to be kicked out of school,’ you turn the teachers into police officers and you say, ‘We’re going to put more kids on the street.’” 

The Democratic full-court press fell short. In November, Proposition 187 narrowly passed and Wilson was convincingly re-elected. Huffington, however, narrowly lost his race with Feinstein and promptly enlisted Ezell to conduct a “canvass” for possible fraud.

Ezell’s Voter Fraud Task Force was a remarkable convergence of political dirty tricks and anti-immigrant vitriol. Ezell soon alleged that at least 170,000 of the 5 million ballots cast during the election were cast by illegal immigrants, and Huffington resultantly refused to concede the race. In the weeks after the election, the duo set up a phone hotline in neighborhoods with large Mexican American populations to report “suspicious activity” from Election Day. Acting California Secretary of State Tony Miller told the Washington Post on December 2nd, “There has not been a scintilla of evidence presented to this office with respect to illegal voting by non-citizens.”

Huffington eventually conceded, and Ezell moved on to a new and ultimately unsuccessful quest to require state-issued I.D. cards for every Californian. He passed away in 1998. Prop. 187’s journey was more circuitous, becoming the subject of a plethora of legal defeats and appeals before, in 1999, Wilson’s successor, Governor Gray Davis, halted the cases, effectively killing the bill. 

As Republican Governors make theater out of immigration, however, the memory of Ezell’s tactics – and the support that he managed to accrue – provides a reminder of long-term weaponization of border politics and the passionate pushback necessary to limit anti-immigrant voices in American society. 

For more on the modern significance of Proposition 187, read UC Davis School of Law Dean Kevin Johnson’s 2020 article, “Proposition 187 and Its Political Aftermath: Lessons for U.S. Immigration Politics After Trump.” 

And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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