Joseph Dassaro can come across as a brash New Yorker even by his own account. The U.S. Border Patrol union official writes with a sharp tongue, too.
He recently skewered the Immigration and Naturalization Service in a satire about the INS hiring spree of Border Patrol agents in the 1990s. Nationwide, the Border Patrol has doubled its staff to 8,000 during the past four years.
Dassaro, 30, made fun of some of the agency's most embarrassing hires in a "recruiting flier" he posted on the local Border Patrol union's Web page.
"We have lowered our standards to an all-time low to fill positions.
"Think we won't hire you? Think again.
"We have recently hired known criminals, drug smugglers, gang bangers, people out of drug rehab, pizza delivery guys (from a national chain), people who write on a fifth-grade level, and, yes, even illegal aliens."
Dassaro said recent headlines and confidential e-mail he received from agents around the country inspired what became a controversial bulletin on the Internet.
It was meant to be sarcastic, he said.
But someone in the INS was not laughing. And a confrontation ensued that exposed an ongoing rift between the union and the INS in Washington.
The INS, the parent agency of the Border Patrol, said some local agents complained about the bulletin. Dassaro believes the complaints came from Washington.
On Aug. 26, the INS told him he was the subject of an "unprofessional conduct" investigation. Dassaro, Local 1613's vice president and chief spokesman, said he was stunned. The former Army sergeant and avid weightlifter had recently received two "outstanding performance" awards for his work in the agency's intelligence unit.
His union attorney asked why he was being investigated.
The INS "said it had to do with the content of the Web site," said the attorney, James Gattey.
It was not the first time Dassaro had antagonized the INS.
He was one of two union officials who alleged in a local newspaper two years ago that Border Patrol supervisors falsified data to make the Operation Gatekeeper crackdown on illegal immigration in San Diego County appear more effective than it was.
A few months ago the Justice Department's inspector general cleared the Border Patrol of any wrongdoing in its reporting of the figures, blaming the whole thing on miscommunication between supervisors and agents.
The union disputed the findings and has remained critical of INS policies, airing its views on the Internet and its 26-page newsletter, the GreenLine. The newsletter recently reprinted a long argument by Dassaro for the separation of the Border Patrol from the INS, an issue being debated in Congress.
But it was his satirical take on the INS hiring process that apparently landed him in trouble and prompted the 1,900-member local union to come to his defense.
On Aug. 27, the day after Dassaro was told he was being investigated, the union suspended labor relations with Border Patrol management as a result of the probe.
The next day the National Border Patrol Council, the local's parent, filed an unfair labor practice complaint against INS Commissioner Doris Meissner in Washington.
As the union's designated Web master, Dassaro went on the Internet and framed his defense around the First Amendment and his right to organize as a labor official.
"This site is under investigation by the INS Office of Internal Audit," he posted on the union's Web page. "An effort to silence this union and your right to free speech and labor activities!"
Things were moving fast. Dassaro had been ordered to appear before an INS internal affairs investigator on Sept. 2 at the Imperial Beach station where he works.
Dassaro put out a call for help.
He found an ally in Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, who, ironically, has been one of the biggest backers of Border Patrol expansion.
In a letter to Meissner dated Sept. 1, Hunter asked whether Dassaro was being investigated for his "off-duty labor activities."
He is still waiting for a response.
But the potentially volatile situation has been defused.
On Sept. 2, the INS told Dassaro his interview had been canceled.
Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the INS, said the agency does not plan to investigate Dassaro. He said the INS conducts extensive criminal background checks and would never knowingly hire someone with a criminal record.
"If (Dassaro) has information we should know about he should bring it forth," Strassberger said.
He said it was unfortunate that Dassaro chose to focus on a few isolated recent incidents.
Those incidents made headlines, however, and have raised concerns about the federal government's ability to screen applicants:
Last month, Nogales Border Patrol Agent Hector Soto was arrested on charges of murder and drug dealing. Soto has been accused of being a drug dealer in New York who killed his cocaine supplier in 1994, two years before he joined the Border Patrol. Soto apparently had no record when he was hired and became a suspect late last year.
This year, a Laredo, Texas, agent was fired for not disclosing he had been deported as an illegal immigrant, a Laredo Border Patrol union official told The Dallas Morning News. The agent had become a naturalized citizen through the amnesty program of the 1980s and was a patrol agent for 10 months before his deportation record became known.
In August 1997 in San Diego, Border Patrol Agent Thomas Bair was arrested after he allegedly smuggled 600 pounds of marijuana across the border near Tecate. He had been on the force for less than two years. Bair had no prior record when he was hired. He pleaded guilty to smuggling in February and is awaiting sentencing.
A spokesman for the San Diego Border Patrol acknowledged that a few bad agents had been hired despite elaborate screening. However, the Border Patrol maintained "lots of checks and balances" in the field designed to keep agents honest, such as frequent changes in assignments and intense supervision, said spokesman Sal Zamora.
Dassaro said he never intended to offend his fellow agents. "The majority of the agents are professional and highly skilled," he said.
But someone had to speak out about the bad hires, he said.
Dassaro said he will soon remove the controversial bulletin. "We proved our point. We don't want to beat a dead horse," he said.
He will continue to be outspoken, he said.
"Hey, I'm from New York," he said.