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Michele James

Michelle James, DFO, Seattle Field OfficeWhat is your position with U.S. Customs and Border Protection?

I am Director of Field Operations for the geographically largest area of responsibility (AOR) in the U.S.  This includes exercising line authority over ports of entry under my jurisdiction and accountability for the overall performance of port operations in the states of Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota.  The Field Office disseminates and ensures implementation of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Headquarters policy, provides technical assistance, participates with the ports in addressing operational issues, assesses controls and improves overall performance, and provides management and mission support services. 

My AOR includes 67 ports of entry (POE) with air, land, and sea operations.  A unique operation of this area is ferry boats from Canada that are pre-inspected.  We are responsible for general aviation, which consists of small aircraft; small boats, passenger rail, cargo, international airports, land border, and seaports of entry.  I supervise 1,800 employees among all POEs and the field office itself, which is in Seattle. I have 24 cumulative years in Federal service.


How did you decide on a career in law enforcement?DFO James between containers at a Seattle seaport terminal.

In high school, I gravitated toward law.  I attended the University of Central Washington because it had the top law and justice program in the state.  After college, I first applied with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in Washington State to become a civilian special agent working with the military.  I met my husband, who was also a special agent, there.  We moved to northern New York, where I applied and was accepted as a customs inspector. I knew I wanted to continue working with the Federal government, and I never looked back.


Did you plan to move into leadership? How did you make that happen?

Did I ever think I’d end up in the position I have today?  Not necessarily, but I did expect to move into leadership.  When I first started at U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), it was really important to listen to those who were seasoned inspectors and gravitate toward those who performed their jobs to the highest level.  Sometimes we hesitate to ask questions as a new employee, but that is important to do.  I still do that so I understand the issue at hand.  I volunteered for details that would give a broad base of experience and lots of exposure to our Agency.  I also made the conscious decision to relocate my family to have upward mobility. 

Working in more locations increases your knowledge base and makes you more competitive for new positions.  I moved from upstate New York to the Dulles area [Northern Virginia], to national headquarters, and took a downgrade to go back to the field in Atlanta  to become a first-line supervisor because that is a critical position to continue up the ladder.  Sometimes we have to step back to continue to move forward.


Secretary Napolitano visitng the port of Sweetgrass, MT. What are some of the challenges faced by a woman in law enforcement?

A lot of it is balancing home and work, not to say that men don’t experience that, because they do.  I made the conscious effort to wait to start a family because of work and some of the moves we made.  When we had our first child, we faced the decisions of who was going to pick up and drop off, who stays home when a child is sick.  My husband really believed in my career and respected it.  As an Agency, CBP is trying to find more ways to work around those challenges, accommodating moms on the job or, on a broader level, providing flexibility through alternative work schedules that trade longer work days for alternative Fridays off, for example, or telework in some situations; a physical fitness program — things that help balance one’s life so a person can appreciate work even more.


What do you find rewarding about your job?

When I became a port director, and also in my position today, I felt a strong sense of pride for those in my area of responsibility.  When I started my current job in 2007, I attended meetings in preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics, which were held in Vancouver, BC, Canada.  This involved a lot of collaboration with other law enforcement agencies.  We wanted to ensure that we had the right staffing at the borders; that there was heightened awareness surrounding the Winter Olympics; exercises with state, local, and Federal partners.  We had the involvement of numerous special response teams. 

I remember coming back through a port from a meeting in Vancouver in an unmarked vehicle; I wasn’t in uniform.  The officer didn’t know who I was, but he was extremely professional, did his job well, asked succinct questions.  At the end of the primary inspection, I told him who I was and how his professionalism impressed me.  To see these officers take such accountability and pride in what they do makes me very proud for CBP.

Special Response Team members deployed for the 2010 Winter Olympics


What advice would you give to a woman interested in a law enforcement career?

The Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl this year.  I heard an interview with the quarterback who said that he had once told his father that he didn’t know if he could play pro football.   His father said to him — why not you?  Law enforcement has been predominantly a male career path, but women can bring so many abilities.  We think about things differently, we approach problems a little differently.  This shows the value of diversity.  I would say to a woman, why not you?  Jump into [law enforcement] and make it everything it can be.

Law enforcement has so many facets that it’s important for women to do homework on what’s a good fit for them.  Reach out and ask questions, seek out different departments. Ask questions at career events.  There is so much to learn. 


Why do you encourage women to pursue a law enforcement career with CBP?

Opportunity and advancement within CBP are really important.  You could be working at the port in the passenger or cargo environments — including special enforcement units, such as analytical and targeting teams or at the National Targeting Center.  There are opportunities to work on foreign details where, from a personal perspective, you gain so much but also have opportunities to build your résumé.  And you can move upwards.  CBP law enforcement is challenging and rewarding.  It requires critical thinking, problem solving, lots of interpersonal and communication skills.

The Agency offers a tremendous number of diverse opportunities.  CBP is a noble career — you can give back to your own country because you are there to protect and serve the Homeland. 

Last modified: 
March 17, 2015