As the director of field operations for the Seattle field office of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which along with the Department of Homeland Security turns 10 this March, Michele James is ultimately responsible for every person who crosses the northern border—from the western edge of Washington state to the northeastern tip of Minnesota—into the United States. Last year that amounted to 25,562,644 people. (And that’s not even counting the 903,556 shipping containers her officers inspected in Seattle and Tacoma.) In other words, it’s an enormous job—one that the Tacoma native performs with the help of thousands of officers and the memory of one devastating September morning.
I never want to forget what it felt like. I was in the field office in Atlanta, at my desk, and I got a call from one of my employees: “Two planes just hit the towers in New York.” We instantly turned on the televisions and started to watch. It was so overwhelming and surreal: I can’t believe this has happened. So I never want to lose that feeling, because it really drives what I do today.
Within my area of responsibility, I have 67 ports of entry. And some of my environments are very unique. You have ferries coming from Canada into the United States. We clear floatplanes and rail passengers, plus cargo. And then there are seasonal ports that are only open certain months. I remember when I got the call: “You’ve been selected for the director of field operations in Seattle.” I didn’t know how I wanted to react. I applied for the job, but until you’re selected you don’t necessarily realize how huge the responsibility is. Knowing that this, of all the field offices, was probably the most geographically challenging was certainly a bit daunting.
You know, most of the folks in my family—my mom and sisters and brothers—were all in the medical field. My father was in sales. So yeah, I’d say I was the black sheep. Even in high school, I always knew that I wanted to go toward law enforcement.
Our job is to read people. You ask questions and you read their reaction. How directly did they respond to me? Are they looking at me? Are they looking off to the side? Or are they just staring me down?
A bad day? We had an individual last year who came through the port in Blaine and actually tried to run over one of our officers in a vehicle. The officer shot at the individual, who then sped down the road. The officer was fine, and we ended up catching the man. It turns out he’d stolen the vehicle and didn’t even mean to be at the border, but he panicked. That’s a bad day.
Some people look at the officer in that booth as nothing more than an obstacle keeping them from getting to where they want to go. And they can have some pretty negative thoughts toward that officer, not necessarily appreciating everything that he or she does for them. They’re there to make sure that when you go home you’re able to enjoy your kids; you’re doing that because we may have kept out someone who really is bad.
We’re always asking ourselves, What can we do better? How do we do it better? There is a constant threat, and, as you change your operation, so will the bad guy. So we work with other departments, like Homeland Security Investigations. They’re the investigative arm for CBP. Our officers will identify someone who’s bringing in, say, drugs, but then we bring in HSI, which tries to link that individual to a bigger operation, more people. That collaborative effort is so important.
I try to be even keeled about how I react to things with our officers. My mentor within CBP, Robert Gomez, was always “easy on the people, tough on the issue.” That was one of his key phrases. Good people sometimes do stupid things. Try to correct what’s wrong and put them on a different path.
I miss being in the field sometimes. There’s a certain excitement and thrill when you make a seizure. Before 9/11, I was a first-line supervisor at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and one day we stopped an individual who’d flown in with a couple pounds of cocaine taped to his back. We looked at his record and found he was traveling with someone, and that person was catching a connecting flight. So we bolted after him, and, of course, the outbound gate was on the other end of the concourse. I’m a runner, but, I’ll tell you, by the time I got there I was winded. We got on the plane as people were boarding, found him, and escorted him back down to the arrivals gate to conduct the pat down. He had the same amount of cocaine in the small of his back. It may not be the biggest seizure, but you walk away feeling like you’ve accomplished what you’re supposed to do.
What I remember about the Vancouver Olympics is being tired. But being able to appreciate the work that our officers did up there was tremendous. I was driving the I-5 corridor, back and forth to Blaine, a lot, and one day I was coming back down from a meeting in Vancouver; it was probably 8 o’clock at night. I got to the border and I wasn’t in uniform, so the officer in the booth didn’t know who I was. I gave him my passport, and he still didn’t recognize me. At the end I told him who I was, and the look on his face was like, “Oh my…” But he was absolutely flawless with the questions he asked and the way he asked them.
The mission is huge. And we know that. We know that the stakes are high.
Published: March 2013