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Obama administration to name a border czar

A former Justice Department official has been chosen as the top U.S. official along the southwest border with Mexico.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A former Justice Department official has been picked to be the Southwest border czar — a new position created by the Obama administration to handle illegal immigration and border issues, according to an administration official.

President Barack Obama travels to Mexico this week to meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon. They are expected to discuss the growing problem of border violence. Since Calderon began a national crackdown on organized crime in 2006, violence among the drug cartels, their rivals and soldiers have led to nearly 9,000 deaths and crime that has spilled across the border into the U.S.

The new Homeland Security post will be responsible for issues related to drug-cartel violence along the U.S.-Mexico border and the estimated 1 million people who try to enter the U.S. illegally each year.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is expected to name Alan Bersin to the position on Wednesday during a visit to the Southwest border, the official said. The official would speak only on condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement.

Napolitano, who is making her second border trip in two weeks, will be discussing the agency's efforts to curb the flow of illegal immigrants, guns and drugs along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Crack down on border violence
The Obama administration has promised to crack down on border violence and work with Mexican authorities against drug cartels. Hundreds of federal agents, along with high-tech surveillance gear and drug-sniffing dogs are being deployed to the Southwest.

In his new capacity, Bersin will work with international officials and their counterparts in the U.S. and border states.

Bersin held a similar position at the Justice Department during the Clinton administration when he was responsible for coordinating law enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border. During his time as "border czar," he oversaw anti-drug and human trafficking problems.

The Justice Department would not respond to an inquiry about when and why its border czar position was eliminated. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, once part of the Justice Department, was dismantled and rolled into new agencies in the Homeland Security Department. The 2001 terrorist attacks spurred the creation of the new department, which was launched in 2003.

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.

Most recently, Bersin was chairman of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority. He also served under California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as the secretary of education.

Earlier, Bersin was the superintendent of San Diego public schools. When Bersin was named superintendent, some Hispanic groups decried his role in a border enforcement program called Operation Gatekeeper. They say the crackdown caused a steep increase in deaths by forcing immigrants to attempt treacherous mountain and desert crossings into the United States.

Anti-cartel strategies
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Attorney General Eric Holder also have visited Mexico recently as part of renewed efforts to work with their counterparts on anti-cartel strategies.

Still, when Obama and Calderon sit down together on Thursday, they each must overcome long-standing cynicism about how the drug war is being fought on the other side of the fence.

Mexico is demanding more politically difficult moves by the U.S. government — namely, reinstating a 2004 assault weapons ban. It also wants the U.S. to do more to confiscate drug money before it reaches Mexico, reduce consumer demand for illegal drugs, focus intelligence on gangs that move drugs in the U.S., and do more to seize marijuana, which accounts for half the estimated $10 billion cartels make in U.S. profits each year.

Top U.S. concerns include corruption and the slow pace of judicial reform in Mexico. Despite some high-profile arrests of police officials, cartels still easily buy off Mexican law enforcement, and most crimes go unpunished.