Indeed, as some feared and others hoped, the Obama administration does like its czars and special envoys.
We’ve already got the war czar, climate czar, health czar, urban affairs czar, drug czar, and a special envoy for the Summit of the Americas, to name a few.
And as of April 15, we now have a border czar when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano named former federal prosecutor Alan Bersin, 62, to the newly created post at a press conference in El Paso, Texas.
Well, his official title is Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Assistant Secretary for International Affairs and Special Representative for Border Affairs.
Somehow I imagine him as Superman, swooping in to save the U.S. from spillover of narco-violence, and to crack down on the flow of guns and drugs across the border.
Actually, his job is even bigger than that (though no cape is involved, as far as I know). Bersin will coordinate the efforts and resources of local, federal and state agencies on counter-narcotics matters, as well as other transnational issues, like cross-border commerce and immigration.
“Alan brings years of vital experience working with local, state and international partners to help us meet the challenges we face at our borders,” said Secretary Napolitano. “He will lead the effort to make our borders safe while working to promote commerce and trade.”
That’s a mighty big challenge.
But Superman or not, Bersin does come to this position with plenty of experience. During the Clinton administration, he served as the U.S. Attorney General’s Southwest Border Representative and the U.S. Attorney for California’s Southern District, with a focus on stemming illegal immigration, and coordinating law enforcement between Mexico and the United States. As federal prosecutor, he racked up an impressive number of drug convictions. As the Southwest border czar, Bersin in 1994 oversaw “Operation Gatekeeper,” a controversial program that beefed up security in the southwest border region.
While human smuggling decreased in that area, the “higher levels of surveillance and patrol along key urban corridors of the border basically pushed many of the undocumented immigrants out to desert and mountain areas and led to much higher levels of death and injury for people crossing the border,” according to David Shirk of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego in a discussion with The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.
For that reason, his appointment was met by criticism from several human rights groups, like the American Friends Service Committee.
Pedro Rios of the American Friends Service Committee told the San Diego Union Tribune that Bersin’s “iron fist” approach doesn’t “respond to the needs of border community members who are still dealing with the errors of policies, like Gatekeeper.”
Nevertheless, Chappell Lawson of MIT, who served as a director of inter-American affairs on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration and knows Bersin personally, called it “a brilliant and inspired choice.”
“I’m going through my mental rolodex—and it’s hard to think of anyone else in the U.S. who would be more qualified than him. He understands the border region; he lives in a border area, he’s been immersed in border issues going on two decades now. Plus, he’s well respected in the U.S. and in Mexico,” Lawson said.
When asked why this new czar position was even created in the first place, Lawson called it “essential for the DHS to coordinate the inter-agency process” on counter narcotics, trade and immigration issues.
So, is a new czar enough to tackle the narco-violence and human smuggling problems along the U.S. border with Mexico?
One surely can’t expect a mere mortal to do the superhero task of solving these problems.
Certainly not alone.
“My great hope is that Mexico will name a counterpart on their end—to have parallel structures on the border. Right now, there is no Mexican border authority—that would help a lot. There are consulates, but not a Mexican border patrol to talk to their U.S. counterparts with their walkie talkies,” Lawson told me.
“You need a coordinator on that side. So, long-term goal, there needs to be a real border control and customs agency in Mexico. In the short term, it would greatly improve the working relationship if Mexico had its own border czar,” Lawson concluded.
As assistant secretary for international affairs for Homeland Secretary, Bersin reports directly to the Secretary of Homeland Security. His portfolio includes the southwest border, overseeing relevant DHS agencies, helping to coordinate border security efforts with the State and Justice Departments, and building relationships on the state and local levels. It does NOT include having a direct role with the Merida Initiative, or taking on a policymaking role, an official from Homeland Security said. He’s not going to be working at the White House or for the White House, as a good source said, stressing, he’s going to be the secretary’s point man on border issues.
But, it’s not yet clear what authority he may or may not have over other DHS agencies, like Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Permanent chiefs for both agencies remain vacant.
Napolitano’s announcement came a day before President Obama headed to Mexico City to meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderón. Drugs, guns, border security and commerce were expected to be top items on their agenda.
*Liz Harper is an americasquarterly.org contributing blogger based in Washington DC. To reach a blogger, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org