A preacher's son who grew up with immigrant children and became a successful fast-food executive, Ezell has been a peculiar point guard for immigration reform. His appointment to the INS's biggest regional post in March 1983 surprised many and his tactics to promote the agency's amnesty program, which ends Wednesday (May 4), have stunned friends and foes alike.
Working his six-state territory like a pro, the cherubic man with bright blue eyes and a big diamond ring has donned a giant sombrero and handed out autographed pictures of himself at Polynesian pig roasts, Chinese New Year's parades, Mexican fiestas and hundreds of other photo opportunities, sometimes three or more a day.
'That's what the critics are all ticked off about,' Ezell says during a drive from Los Angeles to San Diego. 'They say, 'It's a circus, it's all gimmicks.' I say, 'Yes, but it's working.''
Many of Ezell's public actions have been more somber in tone, like the special residency card for a Mexican boy dying of leukemia.
'Our people are not cold, heartless bureaucrats,' he says. 'We're not against illegal immigrants; we're just against illegal immigration.'
Then there are the Ezell enforcement stints that his critics say have scared off aliens and kept registration numbers low (one-third the original 3 million projected), like the factory raids in which he and his agents, with the press in tow, have ferreted out undocumented workers.
On one occasion, says Roberto Martinez of the Chicano Federation, 'Ezell brought his show down from Los Angeles, had Border Patrol agents round up close to 3,000 (illegal workers) in northern San Diego County and displayed them along the side of Interstate 5, announcing, 'This is what we need to do more of.''
Says Ezell: 'They should be afraid of us. The ones who are here illegally aren't supposed to love us.'
Like the agency he represents, Ezell has been plagued by a fragmented image. One day, he is a big, friendly gringo who sings in Spanish to immigrants at amnesty sign-ups. Another day, he tells conservative American businessmen, 'We need to regain control of our borders ... (because) we can't employ all the world's needy.'
Border control has been a favorite Ezell theme. 'The average American is completely uninformed about illegal immigration. They think there are just a few people coming over here to pick crops.
'In fact, the undocumented worker has been used by the free enterprise system to drive wages down ... (and) illegal immigration is the greatest union-busting device there is.'
The real question for Ezell and the INS has been: Given the severe economic straits of most Latin American nations, which account for 88 percent of all migrants to the United States, how feasible is border control?
Not very, say immigrant experts. 'Ezell has a naive perception of our ability to blockade the borders, and protect the 'American' way of life, from people who are fleeing hunger, homelessness and civil war,' says Peter Schey of the National Center for Immigrants' Rights.
'The forces that drive people to come to the United States with undocumented status are far more powerful than he understands, and tough employer sanctions or more border patrol agents aren't going to stop that migration.'
Ezell does not bend on this point. 'How many people can the United States take in? Can we take another 40 million? I don't think so.'
The number of foreigners who enter the United States in the years to come will depend on who enters the White House in 1989, says Ezell. If the Democrats win, he says, 'they'll act quickly to remove employer sanctions and open the door ... they're after legalizing every illegal in America, whatever the cost.'
For now, Ezell is doing what he can in the little time he has left. He has vigorously opposed extending the amnesty program, saying such a move would only benefit 'procrastinators.'
Starting May 5, he will forge ahead into what he calls 'Phase 2' of legalization, including a stronger community relations component and educational programs to teach immigrants English and register them to vote.
'It's not enough to obey the laws and pay taxes,' he says. 'You haven't done your part until you've expressed how you feel by voting. That simple act is where commitment hits the road, and I'm going to push it.'
In his drive to integrate fledgling Americans, Ezell is getting help from an unlikely quarter: Democrats in Congress who once called for his ouster.
Following a notorious Ezell quote that 'if you can catch 'em, clean 'em and fry 'em,' Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif., demanded that he 'be removed immediately' for 'offensive and inflammatory statements.'
The usually unflappable Ezell was stung by the furor. The phrase, he says, was referring to convicted felons, not ordinary migrants. 'The one thing that was unfair, that hurt me personally, was the inference that I was racist in any way,' he says.
Ezell managed to ride out the storm and even got a letter of apology from one reporter who used the quote out of context.
'I gave a copy of the letter to Ed Meese,' he recalls warmly, 'and 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.''
In recent weeks, Ezell says, he got another surprise when Cranston and fellow Democrats approached him to collaborate on post-amnesty immigration.
'Now they call me for meetings and they want me to help them during Phase 2,' he says. 'I've got a million names and addresses of registered aliens they'd sure like to get in contact with.'