- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Ahead of President Obama’s trip this week to Mexico City, the administration will name a border czar to coordinate U.S. efforts to fight illegal immigration and handle the growing problems related to the drug war in northern Mexico.

An administration official confirmed Tuesday that Alan Bersin, who held a similar post in the Justice Department under President Clinton, will be named this week by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to oversee border issues.

Mr. Obama travels Thursday to Mexico City for a meeting with President Felipe Calderon before heading to Trinidad and Tobago for a weekend meeting with 33 North and South American leaders at the Summit of the Americas.

Mr. Obama will bring with him good wishes and an agenda ranging from global warming to economic stability he hopes can serve as the basis of a revamped and renewed relationship. But he faces some skepticism among Latin American leaders who have heard before of a new administrations in Washington promising a new era in hemispheric ties.

“We see this trip as part of the process of the United States re-engaging with this hemisphere. This is not a one-off event,” said Jeffrey Davidow, Mr. Obama’s adviser for the summit.

Some area specialists say that overdramatizes the state of relations - Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Brazil and others forged successful working relationships with President George W. Bush. Others say the promise of sustained U.S. attention will ring hollow to southern neighbors who have heard it before.

“If you’re doing something, and someone tells you a new era in U.S.-Latin American relations has dawned, don’t necessarily drop what you’re doing,” said Michael Lind, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

Mr. Obama faces the most urgent challenges with Mexico, where the shared 2,000-mile border has become increasingly violent as drug cartels battle the Mexican government. That’s on top of the flow of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants crossing the border each year and the billions of dollars in two-way trade.

Mr. Obama’s new border czar will be expected to work with states in the U.S. and with Mexican officials to fight illegal immigration, the drug trade, and the flow of money and guns.

The U.S. government has promised aid, but the Mexican government wants more than money. Mr. Calderon’s government has called on Mr. Obama to impose tighter controls on U.S. guns, including reinstituting the ban on some semiautomatic guns known as the assault-weapons ban. The ban expired in 2004, after 10 years.

“Since then, we have seen a dramatic rise of assault weapons being seized in Mexico. There’s a direct correlation between the expiration of the assault weapons ban and our seizures of assault weapons,” Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan told CBS’ “Face the Nation” program this weekend.

The Obama administration argues instead it only needs better enforcement of existing laws.

After Mexico City, Mr. Obama will visit Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, where he and leaders of 33 Latin American nations - all but Cuba - will gather for the fifth Summit of the Americas.

The White House has not announced any one-on-one meetings between Mr. Obama and other leaders, but has said to expect a new language of inclusion in talking about working with the hemisphere’s nations. At a recent Council on Foreign Relations forum, Mr. Davidow stressed “the day has passed” when the Washington could declare solutions “for” the region.

Some top Latin American leaders have called for the new U.S. administration to engage Cuba, citing the two countries’ relations as a litmus test for whether Mr. Obama is serious about treating the region as partners. Though he didn’t go as far as they wished, Mr. Obama this week did lift the strictest parts of the U.S. ban on travel and remittances from Cuban-Americans to family members still in Cuba.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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