A former Justice Department official who led a 1990s crackdown on illegal border crossings was named to the new U.S. post of "border czar" Wednesday to oversee efforts to end drug-cartel violence along the U.S.-Mexico border and to slow the tide of illegal immigration.
Alan Bersin, a former U.S. attorney who also once served as California's education secretary, was named to the job by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Bersin and Napolitano spoke to reporters on a bridge over the Rio Grande linking El Paso with Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a city plagued by violence among drug cartels and Mexican authorities that has killed more than 10,650 people since December 2006.
The Obama administration has promised to target border violence and work with Mexican authorities to curb drug and arms trafficking. Hundreds of federal agents, along with high-tech surveillance gear and drug-sniffing dogs, are being deployed to the Southwest.
Reality of the threat
But Bersin, speaking in both Spanish and English, immediately cautioned against the exaggeration of the drug cartels' threat to residents of U.S. border states.
"We should be very cautious to not ... misstate the security situation," Bersin said. He noted that there had been no direct spillover of the violence seen in northern Mexico, although cartel-affiliated drug and immigrant traffickers have engaged in kidnapping and other crimes farther north of the border.
The new assistant Homeland Security secretary for international affairs also rejected calls by state officials and others to place troops on the U.S. side of the Mexican border.
"The posse comitatus have served this country well," he said, referring to laws that prevent the U.S. military from operating as law enforcement within the U.S.
Two weeks ago, Napolitano traveled to San Diego, Mexico and Laredo, Texas, to meet with officials about border enforcement and curbing violence spurred by warring Mexican drug cartels. Last year, customs officials apprehended 792,321 people who tried to get into the U.S. through the Southwest border, and immigration officials removed more than 369,000, according to Homeland Security statistics.
After announcing Bersin's appointment on the Texas-Mexico border, Napolitano was scheduled to tour ports of entry in Columbus, New Mexico and Nogales, Arizona. While there, she was to meet with local officials and discuss coordinating efforts to disrupt smuggling and reduce illegal immigration.
Later, she was set to join President Barack Obama in Mexico City to meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
In his new capacity at Homeland Security, Bersin will work with international officials and their counterparts in the U.S. and border states.
Bersin's border experience
From 1993 to 1998, Bersin was the federal prosecutor who led the government's crackdown on illegal immigrants at the California-Mexico border. Bersin and Napolitano were both U.S. attorneys during the Clinton administration.
During his final three years with the Justice Department, Bersin doubled as the Southwest border representative for the attorney general. Under his watch, the U.S. rolled out Operation Gatekeeper, a massive increase in border enforcement in the San Diego area; the program discouraged illegal crossings there, but migrants and smugglers reacted by choosing less populated routes to the east.
Most recently, Bersin was chairman of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority. He also served under California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as education secretary.
"President Obama could not have selected a more qualified, more experienced person to join his administration — especially when it comes to issues along our southwest border," Schwarzenegger said in a statement.
Earlier, Bersin was the superintendent of San Diego public schools. At the time, Hispanic groups decried the appointment and said Operation Gatekeeper caused a steep increase in deaths by forcing immigrants to attempt treacherous mountain and desert crossings into the United States.