Obama Names Ex-Prosecutor As First 'Border Czar'

Alan Bersin, a former Justice Department official who led a 1990s crackdown on illegal border crossings, has been named to the new post of "border czar." He'll oversee efforts to end drug-cartel violence along the U.S.-Mexico border and to slow the tide of illegal immigration.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

President Obama travels today to Mexico City for talks with Mexico's President Felipe Calderon. The Obama administration has announced a couple of moves intended to fight Mexican drug smuggling and drug-related violence.

First, three Mexican cartels are now on a list of narcotics traffickers targeted for special sanctions. That allows the government to freeze cartel assets in the United States and bar Americans from dealing with money linked to them.

Second, the U.S. now has a border czar. NPR's Ted Robbins reports on the job awaiting 62-year-old Alan Bersin.

TED ROBBINS: Officially, the new position is Assistant Secretary for International Affairs and Special Representative for Border Affairs. What does that mean? Here's how Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano described it near the U.S.-Mexico border at Nogales, Arizona.

Secretary JANET NAPOLITANO (Homeland Security): He will be coordinating all of our many efforts with Mexico right now. In other words, he'll be working with ICE and CBP and the border liaison officers and state and local law enforcement on both sides of the border.

ROBBINS: That's Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, along with Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. attorneys, dozens of border sheriffs and police departments, the Mexican army and Mexican federal, state and local governments.

Alan Bersin says he's excited about getting that alphabet soup of international agencies to work together.

Mr. ALAN BERSIN (Special representative for border affairs): It's a magical opportunity, north and south, to actually strengthen security for both sides of the border.

ROBBINS: Bersin spoke with reporters in El Paso.

Mr. BERSIN: What's going on in Mexico, across the border in Juarez, requires that we support the government of Mexico in its very valiant, courageous effort to both stem violence and also deal with the drug trafficking organizations.

ROBBINS: Alan Bersin has been here before on a smaller scale. He was U.S. attorney for the San Diego area, where he worked closely with counterparts in Baja, California to prosecute illegal immigrants in the 1990s as part of Operation Gatekeeper.

Doris Meissner worked with Bersin when she was head of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service in the Clinton administration. She says in this case a czar to coordinate things is the right idea and Bersin is the right guy.

Ms. DORIS MEISSNER (Migration Policy Institute): Not only is it somebody full time that's giving it attention. It's somebody that is really well equipped to do it, because he's done it before. And I wouldn't call it PR. I mean, I think it is a very serious signal and a meaningful signal that is being sent within the United States, as well as to Mexico.

ROBBINS: Bersin's appointment comes just weeks after the Obama administration announced a border security initiative which sends more agents and technology to the U.S. side and more money and training to the Mexicans. It also calls for upgrading ports of entry, such as the one Nogales, so that vehicles can not only be regularly checked for drugs and illegal immigrants coming north but guns and money going south.

Santa Cruz County, Arizona, Sheriff Tony Estrada says in 40 years of law enforcement he's never seen border problems get this level of attention.

Sheriff TONY ESTRADA (Santa Cruz County): Obviously, there's a big focus, a lot of interest on the border. And I think that interest has generated a lot of help from the federal government, especially to us locals. These are things we've never seen before.

ROBBINS: Estrada spoke after Secretary Napolitano gave her speech in Nogales.

On a long series of tables next to him, federal law enforcement authorities laid out evidence of recent success. Sixty pounds of heroin seized coming north just this week, along with a half dozen semiautomatic rifles and a huge pile of cash seized going south. It will take a lot more hauls like that and a real decrease in the violence in Mexico before Alan Bersin's new job as border czar will be done.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: