ICE – One of Many Arms of Department of Homeland Security


When my editor and I first discussed an article on ICE—Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement— I was not quite aware of the scope of all the government agencies that fall under the broad umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security, DHS, the all-encompassing agency that handles the myriad protective security issues concerning our United States.

I soon became acutely aware of protocol and the intricate breadth and depth of networks connected to Homeland Security (an inside tip set me on track) and hoping for a one-stop-shopping solid lead— the Office of Public Affairs, OPA, seemed a good place to start.
During my telephonic enquiry for the media kit and search for a personal interview with an agent—the OPA rep turned the tables by interrogating me; such as the intended focus of my Department of Homeland Security story. Feeling somewhat castigated for my journalistic boldness, I returned to internet surfing. In short, I am in awe of the myriad agencies that fall under Department of Homeland Security and the vigilance in securing our borders from daily dangers, including threats from hostile nations.

While researching, I discovered spin-off agencies that reach out from the DHS Mother Agency—founded and reconstructed after 9/11. Many arms such as ICE fall under DHS with sub-groups falling under ICE like tiers within tiers of agencies morphing into bureaus. For example: the legacy Immigration and Naturalization Services, INS, is now under the Department of Justice, DOJ; United States Border Patrol, USBP, is now under Customs and Border Protection CPB; the legacy Customs Service is now under the Department of Treasury, which is under DHS.

Homeland Security Investigations, HIS, which falls under ICE, as does the Enforcement and Removal Operations, ERO, which falls under DHS, as do the Customs Immigration Services, CIS; Federal Air Marshals, FAMS, as well as a host of others that fall under the ever-broadening umbrella of DHS. Are you still with me?

To add to the confusion; agencies that fall under ICE—consist of more work-related agencies such as ICE’s Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers, IMAGE, an outreach program for high risk industry and national employee concerns since the 9/11 Commission Report. Somehow, I had naïvely expected I could find all this explanatory rigmarole in a Media Kit, but now I understand the meaning of a focus story, which will be ICING.

ICE IN HOT PURSUIT
While reading the 2010-2011 ICE press releases, I was flabbergasted at the range of security breaches and criminal activities handled by ICE task forces within the DHS. The many agencies now sharing information; the Federal Bureau of Investigation, FBI, assists ICE with criminal investigations through vast banks of biometric systems IAFIS—integrated automated fingerprint identification system and since partaking in the programs, over 55,000 people were convicted as criminal aliens. The agencies are now “talking to one another” and have Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Department of Homeland Security

Crimes, other than immigration and customs, under ICE, involve murder, human trafficking and human rights violations, cultural patrimony property, weapons and drug dealing, smuggling, fraud, selling Department of Defense secrets, counterfeiting, intellectual and copyright properties, importing endangered animals, and agricultural infestations that could result in catastrophic crop destruction.
The most dangerous work done by ICE and CPB agents is the protection of our southern border. In the last five years, it is estimated that across the Texas-Mexico border 35,000 have died as a result of drug cartels. Recently two ICE agents were ambushed on the highway to Mexico City; one died and one was severely wounded in a rain of gunfire. Two missionaries were attacked; one died— a jet skiing couple was shot on a lake; only one survived. Two mass graves near the Texas-Mexico border were recently dug up; 145 corpses in one, 72 in another—many headless—the vengeful mark of narco-traffickers.
Monitoring global terrorism is an insurmountable job unto itself; every day reveals serious threats .Two brother ‘sleeper-agent moles’ working IT for British Airways, and having access to sensitive airline computers, were recently arrested for feeding information to an Al-Qaeda cleric in Yemen who targeted BA planes for ‘a spectacular attack’. The same cleric has targeted Wall Street executives and banks with anthrax attacks and warnings were recently posted. San Francisco Bart trains have CAPT, the Critical Asset Patrol Team that monitors the stations on a regular basis to deter potential threats.

PSST! — I CAN SELL YOU A WATCH, SNOW OR AN AIRPLANE!

One of the most blatantly brazen offences pertaining to national security involved the attempted selling of Department of Defense secrets and a fighter jet. A California man, investigated by Homeland Security Investigations, HIS, Defense Criminal Investigative Service, DCIS, Secret Service and ICE, was arrested last year for attempting to sell a Fighter Jet and sensitive Defense technology to a hostile nation through HIS UC, undercover agents.

Two recent ICE arrests involved international situations; a Bosnian ex-soldier returned to stand trial for violations against humanity and a UK national was apprehended for allegedly hijacking the identities of dormant publically traded companies, causing the trading of virtually worthless stock shares to British investors with boiler-room telemarketing. The London ICE Attaché worked with the Securities and Exchange Commission, SEC, and the defendant was arrested in Florida for $130 million mail fraud and money laundering.

Drug smuggling is a multi-billion dollar challenge, and besides coming through labyrinthine tunnels from Mexico to the U.S., Canadian crossings, and ships and planes—drug-runners are getting more innovative. They have tricked-out vehicles; double-paneled trucks, false seats and floors, tires and dashboards and drugs in gas tanks and exhaust pipes. The most ominously dangerous being female carriers like the woman arrested at Detroit Metro Airport carrying 91 heroin pellets inside her body. Recently a 5,000 lb. marijuana load came through hidden in tomatoes, and in Valencia 103 lbs. of cocaine was concealed in romaine lettuce on produce trucks to Canada, along with $2.4 million in cash. ICE in tandem with Customs and Border Protection, CPB, and Intellectual Property Rights, IPR confiscated $4.4 million worth of 22,000 cartons of counterfeit Marlboro cigarettes, $4.7 million worth of ride-toys and $1.8 million in vehicles at Port of Miami. The IPR Center manages domestic and international law to stem counterfeiting threats and supports the ICE commercial fraud program, protects U.S. rights holders and copyright infringement on intellectual written materials such as software, novels and stolen songs.

The agents are everywhere; at a Florida flea market raid, a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of 16,171 contraband products were confiscated, including Rolex watches, DVD burners, DVD movies, music CDs, NIKE, Ralph Lauren and knock-off Prada, Louis Vuitton and Gucci purses (warnings to home purse parties). In Chicago, an illegal Cuba cigar shipment was confiscated and in the Philadelphia airport sniff-dogs intercepted $43,000 in laundered currency en route to Jamaica.

Other areas that fall under the ICE multitude of agency responsibilities, in tandem with U.S. Fish, Game and Wildlife, are the exotic animals and hitchhiking bugs that come from abroad; destructive willow weevils were found infesting Italian ceramic tiles, Khapra beetles were at LAX airport, 55 exotic tortoises and turtles were seized from luggage concealed in Japanese cookie boxes, and at Dulles Airport, agents intercepted a suitcase with prohibited animals, blood and soil from Ghana, and an innocent-looking shipment of reindeer figurines were made from prohibited seeds and grasses.

In January, ICE agents confiscated 163 counterfeited NFL jerseys in Phoenix when a buyer complained of poor workmanship and fraying edges—a surefire indication that the merch was bogus. No matter how cagey the forgers, counterfeiters and smugglers are— ICE and CBP agents are giant steps ahead of them.

CULTURAL PROPERTY SEIZURES
As antiques and art are my interest, I researched how specialized ICE agents extricate info about artifact forgeries and the annual $6 billion global black market antiquities trading—third behind weapons and illicit drugs smuggling. Cultural art and antiquities, without legal provenance, are considered patrimonial artifacts belonging to the country of origin; sarcophagi, grave goods, temple fragments, amphorae, pottery, bronzes, paintings, sculptures et cetera, are objects deemed national treasures and cultural patrimonial heritage. Without provenance, articles are not permitted to be exported, traded or owned—period. Prime examples of high-profile purloined patrimonial treasures are exhibited in the British Museum and are presently in contention as belonging to their home countries.

As readers can see, I have only touched the tip of the ICE iceberg which may necessitate a trilogy focusing on the ICE odyssey; the DHS most powerful far-reaching investigative arm.

US Employers on Notice: The “ICE” Age is Coming

When most Americans hear about immigration policy or “undocumented workers,” a debate of some sort generally ensues. “They do the work most American’s won’t do,” you hear, or, “these are good people who have come here just to do their best for their families.”

The debate is mostly framed by perceptions promoted by the media, who love running video of those flack-jacketed agents with the three, large yellow letters – “ICE” – on their backs; breaking down doors, rounding up poor, frightened innocent workers. Surely, in a civilized society, this “savage brutality,” is uncalled for!

What most people in America don’t realize is that these agents are patriots of the highest order, standing on the front lines of America’s war on terror. The cowardly animals that struck our nation on 9/11 worked in the shadows—their first order of their murderous business being to “blend in” to society; working alongside other “citizens.”

Under the umbrella agency of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is the agency known as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Both agencies have taken an aggressive, proactive stance at going after those who would harm us. Now, more than ever, the cross-hair focus of that effort has been placed squarely on business owners and employers. Every type and size company across America is affected, and all must pay careful attention to their increasing responsibilities regarding compliance with employment law.

The following is an exclusive interview I conducted with a recently retired, senior special agent with the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. While none of the information he shared is classified, we are keeping his identity confidential.

ALIVE: What is or was your role/position within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)?

ICEMAN:
For the last five years I was a coordinator for the IMAGE (Ice Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers) unit of the agency. There are twenty-six plus coordinator positions throughout the nation. I oversaw programs that deal with worksite enforcement. Prior to that position, I worked in the Arms and Strategic Technology Division, and also in departments relating to organized crime and gangs.

ALIVE: What was your job function as an IMAGE Coordinator?

ICEMAN: Image coordinators are responsible for building relationships with employers in a proactive, non-adversarial way, as opposed to the criminal and administrative fine section of the agency. Post 9/11, when DHS and ICE were formed, the government looked at implementing a program that would work alongside employers who were not purposely engaged in criminal activity or violating the law—those employers that want to do the right thing. My role was working hand-in-hand with employers, setting up training for them on audits involving I-9 forms, labor and discrimination—basically all areas that involve the hiring of individuals in the workplace.

ALIVE: So it’s kind of the “carrot and the stick” scenario—you worked on the carrot side of things?

ICEMAN: Pretty much. The thought process behind the IMAGE program was to get employers thinking in the right frame of mind—doing the right things first—then by setting that example, within their respective industries, they would show their peers within their industry that it really isn’t that difficult to do and in doing so they would avoid any penalties, administrative fines or criminal prosecution from the government, whereas if employers don’t take it upon themselves to learn and train and develop a compliance program within their workforce, then the government really gives no “free breaks” on that and can come down pretty hard. If an audit is conducted on someone’s business or company, the employer could face the full brunt of that audit. Sometimes these audits now result in hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in fines. Just for a couple of example, over the past several years, Walmart was fined $12.5 million in an audit case; Swift Meat Packing out of Texas was fined millions of dollars. Sometimes these cases involve criminal activity.

It’s pretty powerful that now the government can come in and conduct an I-9 audit, just like an IRS audit, and levy serious fines and penalties against even a very small company—one with only six or seven employees for example—and end up levying fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. In today’s economy, that’s pretty hard to take. It usually ends up meaning that’s the end of that business.

ALIVE: I’m familiar with the I-9 form, but it sounds like everything drastically changed after 9/11, true?

ICEMAN: Absolutely. When I started with the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in 1988, that agency had oversight of the I-9 form and compliance issues in the workplace. Prior to 9/11, there was not a lot of emphasis on making sure that employers were following the law. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I would estimate that before 9/11, out of each of the 26 district office, only about ten or twelve audits were conducted per office per year. Now, as a part of DHS, each office is conducting 200 to 300 audits per office per year. And that number is increasing every year.

The reason for this is, the 9/11 commission revealed that all of the 9/11 terrorists were all shown to have been working as part of the workforce in the United States. Many of them had fraudulent identity documents—driver’s licenses, passports, and social security cards—the types of documents that would enable someone to work in the United States. In fact, I believe that 26 different terrorists that had fraudulent identification that they used to obtain employment in day to day jobs so that they could blend in with the rest of the community while they were learning their “trade” to commit terrorism—one being in Arizona where they were learning how to fly airplanes.

We looked at that and said, ‘We’ve already got a law in place that congress enacted in 1986 called the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). That law mandated that all employers, no matter what, verify the work eligibility and identity of employees. That’s when the I-9 form was created. The law said that an I-9 form is to be maintained by all workers within the United States. It doesn’t apply to contractors, but if you are an employee, the employer must maintain that document.

So, the 9/11 Commission looked at this and realized that they could not only enforce the laws that are on the books, they could create a ‘choke point’ and make it tougher for terrorists to maintain a secret lifestyle anywhere in the United States. They can’t work and can’t maintain a hiding place within the community. This is just one way that DHS cracked down on the terrorists. So after 9/11, the DHS and ICE really stepped up an aggressive worksite compliance and enforcement program.

ALIVE: I can see that this is a major way to impede terrorists. But obviously there are limited resources. I assume that ICE works on companies on a priority basis, from biggest, on down?

ICEMAN: There are classifications of priorities and the department itself, DHS, classifies certain industries and different types of employers and assigns them a security risk level. For instance, right after 9/11, if you remember one of the first things that we cracked-down on was airports because we knew that was a vulnerable spot—they had already used airports as a means to commit terrorism. The agency looked at that as what is considered a critical infrastructure location. These are the number one locations we try to protect—locations like airports, nuclear power plants, water treatment facilities, food processing plants; any place that could have a major impact on large populations in the United States. Places like railway stations, railroads, subways, bridges and National landmark locations and national events like the Super Bowl. These were the types of things that were audited and investigated first.

After critical infrastructure and high profile, large events, they then looked at what the DHS considers high impact or places of know activity, where it was known as a type of business or industry that it was known traditionally employees unauthorized workers. They also looked at what were considered known egregious violators of labor laws—industries that were know for having exploitive, ‘slave labor’ type situations; ‘sweat shops’ and that type of thing. These are the kinds of employment situations that are looked at next.

Because these employment laws apply to everyone, the agency also has a program that randomly selects businesses for audits also, so that there is no issue of ‘selective enforcement’ or things like that. They also have system, much like the IRS, where the agency gets leads or tips from the public, that suspect that there might be criminal activity going on within a certain company.

ALIVE: So let me clarify. In order to protect things and locations like the Golden Gate Bridge, for example, DHS doesn’t just look at direct terrorist attacks on those facilities, but at the possibility that terrorists might try to work there, thereby gaining access to critical infrastructure from the ‘inside,’ as it were?

ICEMAN: Absolutely. ICE would look at these places from the employer side, trying to prevent terrorists from getting inside of these types companies that have direct access to critical areas, by ‘planting’ employees. The agency tries to be proactive, and the ‘choke point’ on all of this is the I-9, for the identity of the actual employees working in these sensitive areas.

The second is the other group, where they look at the second tier, which are employers and industries that have a track record of employment violation—of cutting corners, where undocumented workers might be more likely to be working. These are the types of jobs where it would then be easier for a potential terrorist to hide, because they know the employer isn’t following the I-9 rules closely.

There are known violators—those who smuggle workers for example, and then there are known industries, like the hospitality and restaurant industry, and construction—all have been known to hire undocumented workers.

The focus now is to go after the employers, rather that the employees, to enforce worker documentation.

ALIVE: So what are the penalties possible for employers that choose to ignore the laws regarding I-9 forms, for example?

ICEMAN: In that case, what you’re talking about is called ‘willful disregard,’ and not following the law. If you had an I-9 and did not make sure it was filled-out correctly or did not bother to check the documents, just dealing with the ‘paper’ violation—that is the administrative violation, meaning simply that you did not ‘fill out the documents properly,’ you’d be looking at a fine of potentially $1,000 to $1,100, per each I-9. You know, the I-9 form is probably the most complicated one-page document that the government has. People don’t realize that. It has a lot of things you have to pay attention to that the government really doesn’t give any breaks on.

Then, they consider things like, how many violations are there? How many employees do you have? Have there been past violations? They look at all of these factors. Then, if there is a charge of knowingly trying to ignore employment law—for example, if you received information somehow that an employee’s driver’s license was fake or that the social security number did not match the employee, and you took no steps to correct or report that fact, then the government could use that against the employer to show that they ‘knowingly’ committed a violation of the law. This can bring the employer prison time and significant fines. Would this happen on a first offense? Probably not, but the amount of money that an employer would spend in this case on attorney fees to defend himself alone makes it pretty costly and serious, no matter what.
Even if an employer doesn’t end up serving time in prison, they can still be saddled with a felony conviction on their record, which isn’t good.

One of the other risks too is that if an employee or some employees are discovered to be undocumented, it can be very costly for the company because they are going to lose that employee or those employees.

And it isn’t going away and it’s something people really should start paying attention to. DHS and ICE are taking all of this more and more seriously. In fact, they just opened what’s called the ‘Audit Fusion Center,’ in Crystal City Virginia, right across from Washington DC, which has been created to conduct and manage the mass production of audits. Over the past year alone, they have increased staffing from having only two or three forensic auditors per office in the field, to where they now have as many as ten many offices. You can see where this is going. It’s going to be much more than just a random chance that a company will be audited. In two or three years, virtually every company could eventually be audited.

ALIVE: With your experience as a special agent for ICE, what percentage of employers are doing things correctly, overall?

ICEMAN: I would say 35 to 40% pf employers are doing things correctly. The other 60 to 65% are not. And what I mean by that is they may be doing most of the steps correctly, but many of those may still have undocumented workers working for them.

ALIVE: Is it pretty easy for companies to stay on top of this and make sure they are doing the right things that need to be done?

ICEMAN:
Unfortunately, it’s not real easy. It’s a fast-pace changing environment, and it’s easy for employers to miss things that can be costly. Even if they are doing everything ‘properly’ as far as paperwork is concerned, they might still end up with lots of undocumented workers being employed due to false identification. In an audit, that company would lose all of its workers. For example, in a case, where a construction company thought they were doing everything right with their I-9s, after we conducted an audit, they lost 90% of their employees. They had about 50 employees, so it basically shut their business down.

Basically, it’s only the largest, most reputable companies that have their acts together. Most mid-sized and smaller companies are in violation in most cases. A lot of small companies don’t have I-9 forms on their employees. And like I said, if a business has, say twenty employees and no I-9s for any of them, at $1,000 each in basic fines, that’s $20,000 that an employer is faced with. Not easy in this economy.

ALIVE: So, what can employers do to protect themselves? I would be pretty hesitant to ask the government to come in and check my records. It would be like inviting the IRS in. Are there private companies or consultants that business owners can use to make sure they are in compliance?

ICEMAN:
There are a few out there, but not that many. As a recently retired ICE agent and trainer, that’s what I do now. And there are a few law firms that have ex-agents like myself working with them as consultants. You have to make sure whoever you work with is qualified. The IRS would argue with this point, but immigration and employment law is one of the most complicated and convoluted in the country, so you have to make sure you’re working with people who know what they are talking about.

Since 9/11 the stakes are very, very high, so the government isn’t willing to take chances with this. And they aren’t cutting employers any slack, either. Every April 15th, business people get all worked up about their taxes, and worry that the IRS might come in to audit their books. But think about it. The stakes with terrorism are much, much more serious. So, how serious do you think those ICE agents will be when they come knocking on your door for an I-9 audit, mister employer?

Weathering Life’s Storms

While I was driving on the freeway last week, a car began to cross over into my lane and then—thankfully—the driver spotted my car there at the last minute (my horn honk helped). Then, less than ten minutes later, another “near miss” happened between a couple of cars ahead of me. Whew!

As I continued on my journey, I sensed that drivers seemed less “grounded” than usual. Then, I checked in with myself. I didn’t feel as grounded as usual either. My mind was racing about various international challenges, as well as the myriad of things that were listed on my “to-do” list for the day. Can you relate?

After realizing I was feeling “worried about the world,” I took a couple of slow, deep breaths and brought my focus into the present moment. Still keeping my eyes clearly focused on the road ahead, I opened my narrow focus (tunnel vision) to allow in the beautiful green hills on either side of the highway. A sigh of relief flowed from my lips as I expanded my perspective.

Next, I brought my attention to my hands, which were intently holding the steering wheel. I tightened and then loosened my hands slightly to find a comfortable, but competent, grip. Ah-h-h…another bit of stress dissipated. Shifting my focus back to my thoughts, I noticed how “busy” my mind still was. So, I reminded myself that there wasn’t anything I could do in that moment to help with any of the world’s challenges…except to stay grounded (breathing slowly and deeply) as I attentively moved forward on the freeway.

With all of the challenges in our world these last few months, it’s no surprise that many people have experienced higher levels of stress than usual. And, keep in mind that it’s normal to move into fight, flight, or freeze responses when stressed. In fact, during prehistoric times, the fight-flight-freeze responses were critically needed to ensure survival.

In contemporary life, however, these stress responses are only occasionally needed. Nonetheless, our primitive brains haven’t evolved fast enough to know that saber-toothed tigers are no longer a constant threat. With that in mind, below are seven suggestions I often offer clients to assist them in interrupting unproductive “worry cycles” to counter their stress responses.

Seven Suggestions for Weathering Storms

  1. Tap into your mind-body inner resources, such as: problem-solving abilities, intuition, courage, spiritual faith, hope, communication skills, computer skills, physical strength, etc.
  2. Remind yourself of other storms you’ve faced and identify what positive resources helped you through those challenging times.
  3. Ground yourself to Mother Earth. Take healthy breaks from “being in your head” and inhabit your body from head-to-toe. For example, gift yourself with quiet, meditative moments that include deepening your breathing into your belly while envisioning a grounding cord that extends like a tree root from the base of your spine…deep down into the earth.
  4. Tap into positive outer resources, such as: supportive family members, loving friends, and mind-body-spirit professionals (if needed).
  5. Be mindful how you invite “world news” into your life. For example, if you are media sensitive and feel overwhelmed after seeing catastrophic images during television news, then seek other, less intense, forms of news media to keep yourself informed.
  6. If your “world” currently feels balanced, then consider taking action beyond yourself and your family…to help someone less fortunate.
  7. Compassionately love yourself and others throughout the duration of the storm.

When weathering life’s storms, it is important to focus on solutions rather than over-focusing on problems. Being solution-oriented will help you avoid becoming stuck in stressful cycles of fight, flight, or freeze responses. And a gentle reminder: check to ensure that your earthquake kit is up to date. If it isn’t, then consider contacting Steve Carlson for various emergency preparedness supplies at www.yoursafetyplace.com. To receive a 20% discount on your order, type-in: SC20 in the “discount code box” at checkout.

Finally, keep coming back to the present moment where you can spend time and energy devoted to taking good care of yourself, your loved ones, and the world at large. Because the truth is, we’re not alone…we are all in this together.

Join Trina and attend her upcoming Walnut Creek workshop: Managing Emotional and Compulsive Eating for Women—John Muir Women’s Health Center: Thursday, June 2, 6:30-8:30 pm. Cost: $40 (Includes Weight Loss: 2-CD set). Seats are limited—register today for this inspiring workshop: (925) 941-7900 option 3. For more info, go to www.TrinaSwerdlow.com & click on “Private Sessions & Workshops”.

Certified Clinical Hypnotherapy services in California can be alternative or complementary to licensed healing arts, such as psychotherapy.


Trina Swerdlow, BFA, CCHT, is a Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist, an artist, and the author of the 2-CD Set, Weight Loss: Powerful & Easy-to-Use Tools for Releasing Excess Weight. Her artwork and personal profile are included in Outstanding American Illustrators Today 2. She is the author and illustrator of Stress Reduction Journal: Meditate and Journal Your Way to Better Health. Trina has a private practice in downtown Danville. She soulfully shares her creative approach to personal growth and passionately supports her clients in reaching their goals. You can reach her at: (925) 285.5759, or info@TrinaSwerdlow.com
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Stanley and Iris: ALIVE at the Movies


Stanley and Iris is a movie that sneaks up on you. While you may or may not be able to relate to middle America, most of us somewhere in our background at least had a taste of it.

This delightful movie puts you right there in the middle of it. Every day factory worker, Iris King (Jane Fonda) get ups, gets the kids ready and then rides the bus to her job mass producing bakery goods. One day while riding the bus her purse is stolen and she gives chase. Going toe to toe with the big bruiser, she is knocked down and he gets away with her purse and devastatingly, her paycheck. Stanley Cox (Robert DeNiro) pursues the two but arrives moments to late to save the day. This marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Stanley works in the canteen at the same company and has noticed Iris while dishing out mashed potatoes.

Iris is recently widowed, harried and trying to make ends meet. Her sister Sharon (Swoosie Kurtz) and brother-in-law Joe (Jamie Sheriden) have moved in with her, her teenage daughter has just found out she’s pregnant and her son is still missing his dad.

Stanley is bright and kind and…illiterate. He rides a bike because he can’t read. When his beloved father passes away he can’t even sign the death certificate. He has lost his job because he’s deemed a liability in the kitchen where he works. He digs ditches, cleans toilets and works in a car wash to support himself. The angst and humiliation are warring within him as he waits for Iris outside the factory in the pouring rain. He starts to ask, stops, tries again but just can’t get the words out. Finally, through his pain as she starts to get on the bus, he blurts out his secret desire, teach me to read.

Thus, the journey begins. After many hours of sitting at Iris’ kitchen table starting from the beginning, while the life of a family surrounds him, Stanley learns to read and write and a beautiful and steadfast friendship blossoms.

Stanley and Iris
, often simplistic and perhaps even naïve, is a story that could be played out in any home in any industrial city. While it never saw an Oscar nomination this movie is honest and direct and entertaining.

Robert De Niro’s gentle underplaying in the central role gives it believability. Jane Fonda brings a pent up desire for things to go back the way they were before her husband died, knowing that can’t be, she is going through the motions of living. While this may sound like a “downer” movie it truly isn’t. Stanley and Iris is about hope, friendship and finally love, abiding love.

I like this movie. I’ve watched it several times in the last 20 years and I am never disappointed. I’ve been privileged to live in an area where illiteracy doesn’t often rear its ugly head and for that I am thankful, but it’s out there and the fact won’t be denied. I am blessed and if you are reading this, you are as well. As always, I welcome your comments at Chastings@rockcliff.com.

2011 Ford Flex – The New Family Transport!


Conveying our family and belongings from one location to another has existed forever. The vehicle of choice to make the trek has changed over the years. First, there was the horse and buck board, some years later emerged the station wagon, suburban, van, minivan, SUV, and now the Ford Flex. Ok, yes, I know I might have skipped a generation or two; however, you get the picture!

In the 1980’s the popular family transport shifted from station wagon to minivan; by the mid-90’s the minivan was re-labeled as the “soccer mom” vehicle. After Ford dropped its Windstar minivan in 2004 it was time to create an exciting people-mover. In 2009, Ford created the all-new seven-passenger Flex.

The Ford Flex is a full-size crossover utility vehicle, built from a version of the same car-platform as the Taurus and new Explorer crossover. The Flex can accommodate up to seven adults within its three rows of seats that can be configured in two layouts 2-3-2 or 2-2-2. Even with the third row of seats in an upright position, there is still plenty of room for luggage, groceries, or other items we lug from here to there. You can also fold down the third and second row seats for even greater cargo hauling.

For those readers unfamiliar with what constitutes a “crossover”, here is a brief description: merge the attributes of an SUV – tall ride height and very versatile for carrying people and cargo – with the comfortable ride and fuel economy of a car. What you get is a crossover – half utilitarian and half car.

The model lineup for the 2011 Ford Flex is as follows: SE ($29,075), SEL ($31,875), SEL AWD ($33,725), SEL AWD with EcoBoost V6 engine ($36,720), Limited ($37,845), Limited AWD ($39,695), Limited AWD with EcoBoost engine ($42,690), Titanium ($40,340), Titanium AWD ($42,190) and the top-of-the-line Titanium AWD with EcoBoost engine ($45,185). Our test model was the front-wheel drive Titanium trim.

My impression of the Flex is that it has a fresh and totally unique styling. It won’t get lost in the crowd of typical crossovers or SUV’s. Looking at the profile of the Flex, think Mini on major steroids. Similar to the Mini, the exterior can be customized with the roof being available in white, silver, body color, and on the new Titanium trim – tuxedo black. The windows and pillars are blacked out creating the image that the roof is floating.

The boxy design, which I like, can be polarizing for some; however, on a personal note; I find it bold! Originally, Ford had thought about placing sliding rear doors similar to a minivan, and then decided not to create a reason for possible “minivan bashing”.

The exterior shape of the Flex is a positive that’s reflected in the extremely spacious interior environment. You don’t feel cramped in any of the multiple seating arrangements or feel like you have given up either leg or storage room to accommodate the third row of seating. Going beyond the vast amount of cosmos in the Flex, the interior is also rich in material quality, elegant ambiance, technological components, and overall comfort. The Flex was designed to be upscale and from the moment you sit inside, the sense of luxury is apparent.

In testing the Titanium model, we were spoiled with soft leather-trimmed 10-way powered front driver (6-way power passenger) seats, navigation system, Sony premium audio system with SYNC voice-activated system and Sirius radio, power adjustable pedals, reverse sensing and rear camera, ambient lighting, Mykey system and optional dual headrest DVD entertainment system.

Ford has been impressing drivers everywhere with its new engines. The 2011 Ford Flex delivers two spectacular V6 engine options. The base motor is a 3.5-liter V6 that generates 262 horsepower with 24 highway mpg (FWD). Then comes the EcoBoost 3.5-liter V6 that bangs out V8 power of 355 wild horses and still manages 21 highway miles per gallon while mated to Ford’s all-wheel drive system. The twin turbo EcoBoost liberates the smoothest acceleration I have ever experienced.

Room for improvement:

  • No push-button start


Cool Features:

  • SYNC Voice Activated System
  • EcoBoost Twin-Turbo V6
  • Power Liftgate

The 2011 Ford Flex is packed with safety features including driver and front passenger dual-stage airbags, canopy side-impact airbags, perimeter alarm, reverse sensing, anti-lock brakes, seatbelt pre-tensioners, passive anti-theft system, AdvanceTrac electronic traction control, RSC Roll Stability Control and electronic brake force distribution.

In Summary – The 2011 Ford Flex is a larger crossover with style and distinctiveness. It is extremely capable and comfortable with more rear legroom in the second row of seats than most, if not all vehicles in its class. The interior is saturated with upscale trim, soft touch-points, and high-tech amenities. The 2011 Ford Flex is perfect for the family needing lots of space; however, not necessarily looking for a minivan, and also cares about style and wants a fun-to-drive vehicle.



Specifications

2011 Ford Flex Titanium

Base price: $40,340 as driven: $43,505 (including destination)
Engine: 3.5-Liter 6-cylinder
Horsepower: 262 @ 6250
Torque: 248 pound-feet @ 4500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Drive: Front Wheel-Drive
Seating: 7-passenger
Turning circle: 40.7 feet
Cargo space: 83.2 cubic feet
Curb weight: 4471 pounds
Fuel capacity: 18.6 gallons
EPA mileage: 24 highway, 17 city
Wheel Base: 117.9 inches
Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper
Also consider: Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse, Lexus RX, and Volkswagen Tiguan

There is Always Going to be Something to Worry About

Earthquake in Japan, nuclear meltdown, tensions in the Middle-East, rising gas prices, high unemployment, soaring deficits, and the European debt crisis—wow, what an incredible list of things to worry about! Yet, the equity markets continued to move higher. How can this be? I would argue that seeing the market go up during times of worry is nothing new. There has rarely been any period of time when there was not something going on in the world that made us worry. As investors we need to accept these constant worries as a normal part of the human experience. If your plan is to wait and get invested “when things calm down,” I am afraid you may be waiting a long, long time. We cannot let current events, no matter how awful they seem at the time; distract us from our long term investment plan. There is no disputing the fact that when a crisis hits it is scary. The markets generally will go down. Expect this. How we deal with it is the key. We must remind ourselves during these scary times that a down market is an illusion. It never lasts. The markets have a very long and predictable record of recovering from crisis, making new highs and rewarding long term investors. That is as long as you don’t panic out during the downturn and let the emotions of the crisis get the better of you.

Change your focus. We can always take solace by focusing on what we are invested in. What is the market? What do you own behind the names of your funds and the numbers on your statements? When you have a globally diversified portfolio, you have ownership in the great companies of the U.S. and the world. Why would you ever want to sell these? Are all of the great companies of the U.S. and the world going to go out of business? Are all of the great businesses that provide goods and services to you, me and billions of people across the globe everyday going to become worthless? Of course not. There will be ups and downs. This is normal and can create opportunity. There will be times when certain asset classes are more attractively valued than others. Today, many countries are growing their economies at faster rates than others. These are the things that an investment professional can help you navigate.

In the end, however, each investor must manage all the things there will always be to worry about. I don’t see the list getting shorter anytime soon. One of the greatest golfers of all time, Bobby Jones, once said, “Competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course…the space between your ears.” I think he very could have been talking about investing as well.

Damien helps individuals invest and manage risk. He is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional and a principal of Walnut Creek Wealth Management. These are the views of Damien Couture, CFP® and should not be construed as investment advice. All information is believed to be from reliable sources; however we make no representation as to its completeness or accuracy. Your comments are welcome. Damien can be reached at 925-280-1800 x101 or Damien@WalnutCreekWealth.com.

Funny Side Up – Peace Between Exes in the Dugouts of Life

Peace Between the Exes

I sat there freezing my buns off wondering if I would be safe or not. I convinced myself it’s just a Little League game and those rugrats are only eight-years-old. Dangerous would certainly not be the word description I was looking for here.

That is, until a ball flew out of no where and landed right next to my expensive cup of java. Okay that’s it. I decided to move my camp to behind the chain-linked fence.

Reorganized with my bag-o-seeds, shades and shorts with goose bumps to match, I nestled in a folding chair that was closer to the ground than I cared to be. My new friends were ants. From this vantage point it was hard to see my son, number eight, swing, make contact with the ball, then run to first base like I was chasing him down with cough medicine. He must’ve made it since he didn’t come back to the dugout to pull grass with all the other gardeners, I mean players.

It was evident the sugar-coated breakfast I lovingly fed my son was the same all the other kids ate, since the energy level was high enough to make a small explosive. The yells from the parents were aimed at their precious little ones to pay attention, but it was as useless as a screen door on a submarine – isn’t that a song?

I yelled the loudest when my son hit another ball to outfield. I was proud until he started teasing the second baseman, and the two got yelled at from one of the coaches. That’s when he went from ‘my boy’ to ‘his dad’s son.’

“My boy” looked so cute in his purple jersey, spiked black shoes, knee-hi socks that reached his thighs and his white see-through polyester pants revealing his action-figure underwear. It’s no secret where he gets his super-hero strength.

I look at him and I see scholarship. I could do it; I mean he could with encouragement, practice, good grades and good looks. A little cute never hurt anybody. But maybe I don’t want him to be a jock, or maybe he wants to be something else when he grows up – I’ll let him decide. Maybe.

So I sat there, safe behind the fence mapping out my son’s future when all of a sudden a bat flew towards me as if it were a newspaper thrown like the paperboy’s best shot to the wrong house. Bringing me back down to earth and out of my dreamlike zone, I gave the nearest coach a growl. If I can keep from spitting and scratching, then the least he could do is keep the little sluggers from random acts of bat-tossing.

I decided to make conversation with the other moms. They were shocked to find out that the coach was my ex, my son is an alien, and I am a pro-basketball player. The latter two seemed to make sense to them, but they found it hard to believe how a divorced couple could be so civil at a social sporting event.

Call it luck or call it a blessing, either way my son is the one holding the four-leaf clover. Literally, he’s out in left field looking for clovers because the batter thinks the ball on the tee is supposed to stay right where it is.

Honestly, the less strife between his dad and I, the greater the chances our son will hit a grand slam in the future “I” pick out for him!

Charleen Earley is a veteran freelance writer, comedienne and high school journalism teacher. Please visit her website at www.CharleenEarley.com.

Legal Lines – Getting Organized

When I see new clients, one of the first things I ask them is whether they have any existing estate planning documents. Is there a Trust, Will, Financial Power of Attorney, Advance Health Care Directive? Often I find out that clients have to search through their files to bring me the requested paperwork. Documents are missing pages, several copies of the same thing—many with no signatures. Some people are fearful of throwing anything away; others are foes of clutter, shredding everything in sight!

It is important to keep a copy on hand of each of these documents, and to keep the Original Signature Documents in a Safe Deposit Box or Fire Safe. Unsigned copies should be shredded, to avoid creating confusion. Only the most current documents should be kept, and the rest shredded. ONE EXCEPTION: you should never shred your original Trust, unless it has been revoked. Changes to your Trust, such as Amendments or Restatements should be kept with your Trust, since they are tied to the existence of the original Trust.

Your Executor/Trustee should know that you have a Trust and your Attorney’s information. One of my clients was a niece helping her very ill uncle. The only way we found out that he had a Trust was to look at the title for his house. Then she had to hunt through all of his records to find the documents. Since she was able to find his Trust and Power of Attorney, I was able to help her take charge of his accounts for his benefit very quickly; otherwise we would have had to go to Court to apply for a Conservatorship, which defeats the purpose of having your Estate Planning documents done in the first place.

Tax season is over. Now is the time to make a point of organizing all your paperwork while we are in between seasons and busy holidays.

More on Short Sales

Q. My spouse and I live in Blackhawk. Our home has significantly decreased in value since the peak market a few years back and now we are thinking of ‘short-selling’ it. I’ve heard that the success of a short sale depends heavily not only on the amount of the mortgage forgiveness but also on the specific bank or lender – is that true?

Yes, you are right. The bottom line is that some financial institutions cooperate greatly and some are ‘black holes’ that will consume your time, energy and sanity as you try to work within their system. The amount of lender cooperation or frustration is actually tracked on a monthly basis by third party short sale facilitators who typically assist homeowners and Realtors through the rigorous short sale approval process. For example, if your loan is with Wachovia, Wells Fargo Financial/Home Equity or Patelco, the initial response time for a short sale approval can be 30 days or less; however, if you loan is with PHH, US Bank or SunTrust, the response time can be a whopping four to six months. And this is only for first mortgages, not seconds, where it can get much more convoluted. As always, my advice is to navigate the short sale waters with a professional Realtor who specializes in the short sale market as that will provide your best chance of success.

Q. I have a friend at work who may be selling his home. I referred him to my preferred Realtor but he’s also thinking of using an agent he worked with in the past who now lives out of the area. My friend is concerned if he works with this non-local agent that the local agents may tend to ‘boycott’ the listing and not show his home because he chose to work with someone from the outside. Is that how it works? Your thoughts?

Your friend should have valid concerns from a couple of different aspects. The ‘boycotting’ thing could be a minor factor however the biggest concern should be trying to sell while being represented by an agent who is not intimately involved, day in and day out, with the dynamics of our 2011 local marketplace. This is a tough market and sellers need every possible advantage to come out ahead in the marketing of the property—the negotiating of the contract and the closing of the transaction. More transactions are falling apart (or worse yet, headed to litigation) at the eleventh hour in today’s market because sellers are choosing listing agents who aren’t assertive enough by nature or skillful enough by experience to get the job done—quite simply, they don’t do a thorough job up front of qualifying the buyer’s ‘loan-ability’. Mortgage lenders today are scrutinizing every aspect of the buyer’s qualifications, right up until the funding of the loan, which is too late in many transactions to right the ship if the lender ultimately denies the buyer’s loan. The bottom line: it’s never been more important or critical to sellers for their listing agent to find the RIGHT buyer for their home, not just any buyer. And many agents out there don’t even know the right questions to ask. Also, unless a seller has a strong negotiator in his corner, the inspection phase of the transaction can cost the seller dearly during the repairs negotiation. Lastly, I firmly believe that the daily marketing and networking of the property will suffer without a strong local agent; it’s a 24/7 job in today’s market. To summarize, your friend is wise to question the effectiveness of utilizing an out-of-area agent; my recommendation is to interview at least one credentialed local Realtor and then compare the service and skill level differences of the two agents prior to making such an important decision.

Tom Hart

Tom Hart

Tom Hart is a practicing Real Estate Broker and a partner at Empire Realty Associates in Danville. He is a Certified Master Negotiator by the University of San Francisco and a Certified Master Strategist by HSM Harvard Program on Negotiation. He is past president of the Contra Costa Association of Realtors (2005) and past president of the Realtors’ Marketing Association of the San Ramon Valley. Tom is in high demand as a speaker & trainer inside & outside the real estate industry.

On the Green: Expectations and Patience

It happens to all of us: new golfers, expert golfers and professional golfers. One good shot followed up with a bad shot. Good one day, bad the next. Lowest round ever and the next time you go out it’s as if you haven’t touched the club in a year. Holing every putt on the front nine and then missing them all the back nine. A great front nine score followed up with a horrible back side score. It goes on and on!

If you have played golf for awhile you have gone through this probably several times. You have even come to know that this is part of golf, part of life. That’s the perspective that keeps you sane but it is still very, very frustrating. If you’re new to golf and you start seeing how erratic you are with golf, you might think this only happens to you. Well, it doesn’t. It happens a lot to everyone.

Rory McInroy can attest to that. He is the European and PGA Tour sensation that shot rounds in the 60’s at last year’s British Open and followed up with an 80. At the Masters just this year he shot three rounds in the 60’s and had a horrendous day on Sunday. Point is, we all do it and it’s frustrating and perplexing. Tiger Woods was being interviewed when this very subject was brought up. “Why can’t you play great all the time and hit the ball consistently well?” His reply was, “Too many moving parts in the swing to coordinate and time.” You remember Tiger Woods, best player on the planet who has, um well, taken a turn “backwards?”

Sports psychologists have had a field day with athletes who are trying to unlock these mysteries. I wonder if all the knowledge that they have and in all the wonderful advice they give if they don’t ever experience for themselves the ups and downs in performance that all athletes encounter? My guess is that they do too. They are human just like us. Not immune to emotions and challenges in their thinking that create changes physiologically.

I am not a sports psychologist but have met several. I have attempted plenty of times to understand why we go through so many rollercoaster rides and have befriended other players who have had tremendous success at the highest level in the sport of golf. I can tell you that it is mostly psychological for them and me, and probably you too. I believe the breakdown exists, for many, in the way they are thinking.

In a nut shell, here is what I do think happens when we start playing the “yo yo game.” Very quickly when you play a good round or front nine our expectations or hope rises. When this happens, our patience drops. We do this unknowingly. When things start going well we feel great, trust takes over, confidence rises and when all this “good stuff” happens, this is when we become vulnerable. Instead of staying in the moment we wander in our thinking. “I hope I can keep this up for the back nine; I could have my best round ever. Wow I can win this tournament because I am playing so well.” All of the sudden you are out of the moment. One mistake kills that momentum and suddenly you panic, and your patience goes next. You hear it a lot when players are being interviewed. They talk about staying in the moment; not thinking ahead; not thinking behind. Here is some advice: when you catch yourself doing this, stop it. Bring yourself back to what you need to do on the very next shot. Sound easy? It takes conditioning your mind and it’s the biggest challenge I have ever personally had with golf. You need to become aware of what’s going on in your head to ever have a chance of understanding where the breakdown is. Better control of your focus will lead to surges in your concentration and before long you will be sustaining that for longer periods of time. This is a huge challenge for all golfers but it’s what professional golfer’s do well most of the time.