San Diego Union Tribune
April 16, 2009
by Sandra Dibble
When Alan Bersin first served as border czar, illegal immigration was the focus. Now, as he steps into a position similar to the one he held in the mid-1990s, Mexican drug cartel violence has taken center stage.
“It's a shifting set of priorities,” Bersin said in a telephone interview yesterday from El Paso, Texas, after he was named assistant homeland security secretary for international affairs. “The job of coordination is very much the same, but the circumstances are completely different.”
Bersin, a former U.S. attorney and San Diego schools superintendent, will serve under Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as the department's special representative for border affairs, a job he said will involve “being her eyes and ears” and ensuring coordination among U.S. law enforcement agencies on the border.
Based in Washington, D.C., Bersin, 62, will be involved in the full range of border enforcement issues, from the northbound flow of drugs and illegal immigrants from Mexico, to the southbound flow of guns and cash from the United States.
He takes the position following a rise in drug-related violence in Mexico, the result of President Felipe Calderón's massive push against drug cartels. “Because of the violence in Mexico, there has been a focus on assuring security and avoiding spillover from that violence,” Bersin said.
The border has been transformed in other ways, Bersin said, “in terms of the resources and the sophistication of infrastructure that exists. . . . There are challenges to be sure, but they are challenges of a very different cast than was the case in the 1990s.”
Speaking on the eve of President Barack Obama's first official visit to Mexico, Bersin said part of his job will be improving relations at a “historic moment in the bilateral relationship,” with “the chance of leaping ahead in a very important way, in a very respectful way, and a mutually supportive way.”
A Brooklyn, N.Y.-native who has lived in California for 19 years, Bersin said he is fond of riding his horse in the Tijuana River Valley, close to the border fence. The border, he said, is “the place where a third country exists, and that's the one that Secretary Napolitano is interested in developing, those interests that are mutual to Mexico and the United States.”
While serving as U.S. attorney in San Diego, Bersin also was the Department of Justice's special representative for the southwest border from 1995 to 1998 during the Clinton administration.
In that position, known as border czar, Bersin was a key player in the U.S. government crackdown on illegal immigration in the San Diego area called Operation Gatekeeper. The initiative pushed illegal immigrants into unpopulated areas where thousands have died of thirst and exposure.
“Operation Gatekeeper was the beginning of an effort to restore the rule of law to the border and introduce some coherence to the border,” Bersin said. It was instituted, he said, “in a completely different context than the one that faces DHS today.”
The deaths “were largely a function of the migrants being taken there by smugglers,” Bersin said.
Extension of the U.S. border fence, long a sensitive topic in bilateral relations, “is no longer the central debate because most of it is built,” Bersin said, adding that the federal government has completed 618 of the 667 miles of fence it set out to build. “The notion of building 2,000 miles of fence I don't think is on the table. . . . We wouldn't put a whole lot more fence across the border because there are better ways to control it.”
Bersin, whose wife, Lisa Foster, is a San Diego Superior Court judge, left border issues behind from 1998 to 2005 when he was superintendent of San Diego public schools. He then served as California's secretary of education under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Most recently he was chairman of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, a job that paid $172,000 until 2007, when the state eliminated the salary and replaced it with a small monthly stipend. The San Diego mayor fills the position through appointment.
In recent months, Bersin had been the U.S. co-chairman of a binational task force examining critical border issues. Andrés Rozental, a former deputy foreign minister of Mexico and the group's Mexican co-chairman, applauded Bersin's nomination, saying “he brings a genuine concern and experience on the border.”
“I hope that the Mexican government will seize the opportunity to do something similar” and appoint a counterpart to Bersin, Rozental said.
Mexico has no border czar in place. Ernesto Ruffo Appel, a former Baja California governor, was appointed by former President Vicente Fox to such a position in 2001 but resigned two years later because he found little support in Mexico City.
Bersin's success in the job will largely depend on the authority he is given. Ruffo urged Bersin to work closely with border governors “because they are the ones who best understand the reality. The fundamental vision must come from the region.”