EL PASO, TEXAS (AP) - The job title _ “border czar” _ is familiar to Alan Bersin, who more than a decade ago led an effort to fight drug and human smuggling that had mixed results at best.
Bersin was tapped Wednesday to oversee America’s efforts to keep drugs and illegal immigrants from flowing in from Mexico. As a federal prosecutor in the Clinton administration, he headed up a border crackdown that discouraged illegal crossings in the San Diego area but drove migrants to attempt more dangerous treks through the desert.
He acknowledged the difficulties of his assignment as he stood on a Rio Grande bridge linking El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a city especially plagued by the drug violence that has killed more than 10,650 people in that country since December 2006.
“I understand as a father and a former prosecutor that we need to actually deal with the problems” like the vast consumer market for drugs in the U.S. and the ease with which cash and weapons are smuggled south, Bersin said.
Bersin, now the assistant Homeland Security secretary for international affairs, held a similar title from 1995 to 1998 _ Justice Department special representative for the Southwest border. As he will in his new job, he worked with agencies on both sides of the border to help coordinate the U.S. government’s efforts to curb the flow of drugs and illegal immigrants from Mexico.
Bersin brings a deep understanding of the border, like his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor. He rides horses on his ranch along the San Diego border, near the shanties of Tijuana, Mexico, in an area that was overrun with illegal immigrants until the mid-1990s.
Bersin’s legacy from that job was a U.S. government border crackdown in San Diego, called Operation Gatekeeper, launched in 1994 and modeled on a similar effort in El Paso. Heightened enforcement in those cities didn’t actually change the number of immigrants coming in, but pushed them to remote mountains and deserts, mainly in Arizona, where thousands have died of exposure and thirst crossing the border.
Even advocates of tough border enforcement say that strategy failed.
“It demonstrated you can control the border, but the bad news is you can’t just do it 14 miles here or there,” said Peter Nunez, who preceded Bersin as the top federal prosecutor in San Diego and now teaches immigration policy at University of San Diego. “It’s a long border, 2,000 miles long.”
Napolitano, introducing Bersin in El Paso before continuing a tour of the border in New Mexico, agreed that for every success in one spot, the trouble would move to another.
As U.S. attorney in San Diego from 1993 to 1998, Bersin, 62, was known as an effective prosecutor with a knack for getting his bosses in Washington to devote money and attention to the border. Critics said the Brooklyn native’s style was heavy-handed and uncompromising _ a reputation that stuck when he was superintendent of San Diego public schools from 1998 to 2005.
The school board bought out his contract a year early after repeated clashes with the teachers union and some board members. Despite his inexperience at running public schools, standardized test scores rose under his watch and supporters welcomed his focus on improving math and literacy skills.
Hours into his new job Wednesday, Bersin set up a potential conflict with border governors and members of Congress who have demanded troops along the border to control possible spillover violence from Mexico.
“We should be very cautious to not misstate the security situation,” Bersin said. “The posse comitatus have served this country well,” he said, referring to the law prohibiting the use of military in a law enforcement capacity in the U.S.
After his rocky tenure in San Diego education, he largely avoided controversy during a stint as California’s secretary of public education, an appointee of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and as chairman of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority.
Bersin is a longtime friend of former President Bill Clinton and has known Napolitano since they were border-state federal prosecutors in the 1990s. He has said little about his personal views on immigration.
Since February, he has been U.S. co-chair of a group of experts that plans to recommend border policies for the U.S. and Mexican governments. He kept his views close to the vest during two days of discussions at University of San Diego, largely limiting himself to the role of referee.
Enrique Morones, a pro-immigration activist in San Diego, said he would have preferred New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson for the job but welcomed the new position. He said Bersin’s track record in law enforcement make him an ideal choice for attacking drug and weapons smuggling.
“I’d rather have someone who knows the issues than someone who spends two or three years learning them,” said Morones, president of Border Angels, which delivers water to migrants who cross the border illegally.
Andres Rozental, Mexico’s deputy foreign secretary from 1988 to 1994, agreed that Bersin’s understanding of the border makes him a strong choice. Rozental is Bersin’s Mexican counterpart on the panel formed in February by the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations and the Pacific Council on International Policy.
Bersin’s role in Operation Gatekeeper will have little bearing on his new job, Rozental said.
“I think he was acting under instructions of his government,” he said. “I think President Obama has different ideas about how to deal with these issues.”
Elliot Spagat reported from San Diego.
(This version corrects that deaths figure is for all of Mexico, not just Ciudad Juarez.)