CALEXICO — Even though judged well-qualified to become an immigration inspector by management at the downtown Calexico Port of Entry, a local woman was warned at the last minute she would plunge into a dangerous situation and have to deal with some ruthless people if she pursued her dream of working as an immigration inspector.
“I was a little hesitant because I was
going into an all-male environment but I was really enthused and even though
I’m tiny, five feet and a 100 pounds, I knew I could do it and was determined,”
said Delia De Lira. “I passed all the written tests but still had to go before
the oral board.”
De Lira already was working for the
Immigration and Naturalization Service, now part of the Department of Homeland
Security, for several years. She was hired right out of Calexico High School
after a career day tour of the port during her senior year. But she started off
in the stenography pool doing shorthand and typing.
After several years, she was promoted to
office receptionist where she was coached in the fundamentals of immigration
law. She then had to screen documents of applicants wanting to cross the
U.S./Mexican border, including border crossing cards, field worker cards or
visitors arriving to shop or see family.
“I’d say 98 percent were from Mexico,”
recalled De Lira. “But this was interesting work and then a supervisor I very
much respected, Rufus D’Albini, told me, ‘You’re so sharp, why don’t you apply
for immigration inspector?’”
De Lira was bursting with confidence she
could perform up to standard despite male applicants who taunted and when male
immigrants called her a bitch, she would break down and cry. This was 1971 at
the height of the Equal Rights Amendment campaign. Despite the discouragement,
De Lira stood her ground and passed her oral exams, too, and after six weeks
training in Brownsville, Tex., became the first women immigration inspector.
“I was proud because I broke ground for
other women,” she boasted. “Other women heard about me and followed me into the
next class. They thought, ‘If she can do it, so can we.’”
Her primary task was to check border
crossers had valid (not forged) documents including green cards, border
crossing cards and visas, among other necessary papers. She also received a
more thorough grounding in immigration law and learned to be watchful of
immigrants smuggling drugs or agricultural products that could bring in an
infestation of pests.
“We had to check as they drove up to the
inspection booth and there was some pressure because we had to finish within
three minutes,” De Lira recalled.
“We had to inspect their cars and study
their body language, determine if they carried contraband. It was not easy
because some objected to a female authority, complaining ‘How dare you ask me
to open the trunk?’” she added.
Inspectors had to rotate from primary
lanes for cars to pedestrian lanes and she remembered finding 12 falsified
papers within a half hour. She said she realized some border crossers assumed
because she was female she was an easy target to deceive.
“But I became notorious for intercepting
false documents,” she said. “Afterwards, we had to type up reports and I had an
advantage from my secretarial work and could complete reports in 10 minutes
while my male colleagues took a half hour.”
Within six months, De Lira won over her
male co-workers who then thought of her as “one of the guys.” But because of
her deft typing skills a supervisor offered to have De Lira complete the
reports for all the inspectors on her shift. But she said no that she was no
longer a secretary but now an inspector. Her insight eventually paid off.
Promotion to Supervisor
In 1976, De Lira was promoted to supervisory
inspector and became a shift supervisor who made out shift schedules, filled
out performance ratings and coordinated with intelligence agents regarding
warnings of contraband likely to be smuggled.
De Lira worked at INS through 1995, 31
years of service, and looks back on it as a good career.
She admits she cannot be content being
idle and yet after a long successful career that most would find fulfilling,
and happily settle into retirement, De Lira added a second act to her vocation.
She now works as a secretary for a construction company in Imperial. She calls
herself a workaholic who has had several private-sector jobs and volunteered
for the American Cancer Society until last year.
glad way back in high school I made the correct decision,” she said. “Little
did I know when I took a tour of the Port of Entry (four lanes only then) that
I’d become an immigration inspector.”