Thursday, February 21, 2008

I Have to Be Who I Am, by Julie Sullivan

The morning after the governor, the mayor and members of Congress demanded that he resign, David V. Beebe arrived at his desk, as always, just after 6 a.m.

As critics jammed telephone lines to his supervisors in California and Washington, D.C., Beebe worked alone in the locked, polished stillness of his fourth-floor office. His staff of 135, stationed mostly on the floors around him, were somber. Friends chatting on their lawns near his Beaverton home shared a hushed concern. But the telephone on Beebe's immaculate desk was noticeably quiet.

As district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Beebe is Mr. INS, the point man for immigration law in Oregon. His signature is stamped or signed on almost every significant paper that deals with deporting criminals, arresting illegal workers, approving steps toward citizenship. His name also appears on orders that divide families, incite attorneys and has now mobilized furious business and political critics.

For four months, his handling of INS rejections of Asian travelers at Portland International Airport has drawn a steady stream of senior INS and U.S. State Department officials to Portland, where his methodical, precise response has exasperated even the regional INS public relations director.

"She says I'm a total disaster," Beebe said of his image. "And she's probably right. It's not like I'm oblivious to that, but I have to be who I am rather than project a veneer of something I'm not."

When reports of Portland's unusually high rates of refusals at PDX drew a chorus of critics in April, Beebe responded exactly as he has in 12 years as district director, with little apology or emotion. He held lengthy public meetings and seminars, explaining in sometimes excruciating detail the alphabet soup of immigration forms and protocol. He telephoned business executives, wrote lengthy explanatory letters and is frankly flabbergasted that so many of the people he's been calling are the very ones calling for his head.

"I thought we were building bridges," he said.

Instead, critics are building a case that Beebe's office is out of sync even with the INS, operating with a draconian mindset that threatens international business and tourist traffic.

Beebe, the man who for 25 years has enforced the nation's immigration law, to the letter of the law, is finding for the first time in that pursuit, no sanctuary.

A supervisor who treats employees with a familial loyalty is having to publicly question his staff. A federal official who has embodied strict policy with no display of private feelings is facing a fight that feels very personal. A fight that, as in so much of his life, he faces largely on his own.

Attending to detail

Last year, 94,000 "customers" approached the counter of the Portland INS. The line of immigrants, refugees, adoptive parents and newlyweds forms outside the stained stone walls of the unmarked federal building on Northwest Broadway as early as 7 a.m.

But Beebe is always there first.

Neighbors can set their watches by the 55-year-old civil servant: up at 3:45 a.m. for calisthenics, out the garage door by 6 a.m., in the office 14 minutes later in a dark suit and silk tie. Beebe is 6-foot-2, 170 pounds of self-discipline who controls high blood pressure through habit. He takes the stairs, never elevators. He takes walks, not lunch. He never has more than a single glass of wine. He trims his lawn Tuesdays and Thursdays, like clockwork.

Neighbor Bob Eurick, a retired Portland battalion fire chief, had no reservations about loaning Beebe his small airplane. Beebe insisted on renting the plane, always paying more than necessary, returning it with the fuel tank full and the windshield clean. Eventually, Beebe bought his own plane, a 1980 Piper Turbo Arrow that he prefers to fly at 6,000 feet, where "it's safer." The two men, close friends whose families spend holidays together, fly to Independence for breakfast or Sisters for the weekend. Still, Beebe spends more time maintaining the plane than he ever does flying.

"He always does everything he's supposed to do first," said Eurick.

For Beebe, flying was always more than recreation. It was a way out.

"I came," he said, "from dust." He was born in Minden, Iowa, population 400, the second child of the publisher of the Minden Times, who died of a stroke when Beebe was 1.

His mother remarried and had two more daughters. Shortly after the youngest was born, his mother was infected during a polio epidemic and within three weeks, died. Beebe was an orphan by age 7.

His mother's husband, who never adopted him, struggled to farm 120 acres with four small children. Beebe walked each morning to a one-room school with no running water. But he had to get his work done first: up at 3:45 a.m. to hand milk the cows.

When he was 12, they lost the farm. Beebe went to work alongside his stepfather at a gas station in town. The stepfather, meanwhile, had married a woman with three children. She did not like Beebe, threatening to put him in an orphanage and taking little interest in his well-being.

What saved him were his schoolmates, "my contact with reality," and the planes crossing the Iowa skies. From the time his mother died, he dreamed of flying. He graduated from high school on a Thursday night in 1963 and by Sunday morning was en route to the Air Force.

It was only when he arrived at boot camp that he learned he needed to be an officer to fly, and he needed a college degree to be an officer. He instead was assigned to Bitburg, Germany, where he worked on guidance systems for missiles. At 19, he got his recreational pilot's license and his first sense of belonging.

Nine fellow airmen became his "brothers" while the military's bearing, structure, ethics and demand for personal responsibility became his foundation.

His "brothers," all college-bound, convinced him to start university studies. His high school grades were so poor that Iowa State University accepted him only on probationary status after his discharge. But once there, Beebe blazed through in three years, earning a bachelor of science degree in sociology and psychology, intending to return to the Air Force.

When poor eyesight ended his dreams of becoming a military pilot, he worked in real estate and for a telephone company before returning to Iowa State to earn a master's degree in industrial relations. By then, he had married his wife, Kathy, and was the father of his only child.

In 1975, he went to work for the INS, rising from employee relations specialist to program analyst to deputy district director in St. Paul, Minn. In 1988, he became acting director of the Portland office, made permanent four months later.

Oregon, though a small district, offered the authority, autonomy and field work he wanted. He arrived just as the office's first personal computers were being unloaded, the first sign of a new era.

A mammoth job

In the years since, the INS grew into the largest federal law enforcement agency in the nation and the Oregon staff doubled. In 1999, Beebe's office tallied the arrests of 2,200 illegal immigrants and processed 23,000 applications for immigration benefits.

"The job," he said, "is mammoth."

From the beginning, Beebe has been a student of efficiency, studying methodologies and where bottlenecks of paperwork choke the system. People still have to wait nine to 12 months for their documents, but the time is less than half the national average. When the Oregon congressional delegation last year asked the Portland office to track the paperwork of constituents' cases, Beebe responded with a worker and a pie chart on how fast queries were answered.

"He's a very, very dedicated public servant," said Gunther Hoffmann, the honorary German consul.

Such meticulousness earned Beebe an award for service from the Oregon Consular Corps in 1998. But it also strengthened his reputation as a technocrat, efficient but cold.

In an office that often deals with people fleeing persecution, poverty and war whose lack of English and money render them helpless, the process frequently seems remote, the leader devoid of sympathy.

"We have to move away from that term (sympathy) in terms of the performance of my duties," Beebe said. The INS must be impartial, he emphasized.

"If we allow personal opinions or feelings to inadvertently be factored in, we've compromised the oath to which we have all been sworn."

Unlike some district directors, he has almost never given people a break, believing that the place for discretion and sympathy is in immigration court.

"He lives by the book, strictly by the regulations," said his son, Capt. Bryant Beebe, 28, an artillery officer at Fort Sill, Okla. Beebe talks to his son almost daily, as does his wife, Kathy, who works at the Housing Authority of Portland.

Beebe says the most important things in his life are his family, his faith -- he's a stalwart member of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in Beaverton -- and his duty. He believes he is keeping the nation safe and protecting jobs for its citizens.

On Monday, Beebe will meet with his boss, the INS regional director, and the elected officials demanding his resignation.

In the silence of his office last week, he picked up the telephone to call them, then put it down again.

"I've always been left on my own," he said.

Oregonian researchers Gail Hulden, Lovelle Svart and Lynne Palombo contributed to this report.

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