When high-ranking officials in the Obama administration travel to Mexico today to discuss that country's role in combating border violence, one key member of the team will be missing: the commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection division of the Department of Homeland Security. That's because the appointment of the president's nominee to the position, Alan D. Bersin, remains hung up in the Finance Committee of the United States Senate, where it has languished since September.
Bersin is currently the Special Representative for Border Affairs (informally called the “border czar”) and a former U.S. attorney. Former Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar currently serves as the acting commissioner of CPB, which directs the activities of the Border Patrol and enforces trade and tariff laws.
It's unclear whether politics are playing a role in delaying the appointment. In response to a call to U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Montana, who chairs the Finance Committee, a committee aide said an "expeditious and thorough review of nominees is simply critical. Committee staff — both majority and minority — evaluate nomination information as quickly as possible after it has been submitted to the committee and will continue to do so.”
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Finance Committee, said the committee is still vetting Bersin, but he indicated general support. “The Finance Committee is doing its due diligence and conducting thorough background checks on Mr. Bersin,” reads a statement from his office. “Sen. Cornyn is waiting for the final results of the committee’s research, but at the moment, there doesn’t appear to be a reason he would not support him. But, this clearly is a critical position for Texas that must be filled especially in light of the security threats along our southern border.”
A simple-majority vote in favor of his nomination by the Senate Finance Commitee — 13 Democrats and 11 Republicans — would send Bersin's nomination to the full Senate for confirmation.
Cornyn said last week in a joint statement with U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison that more attention should be directed to the border. Meanwhile, border lawmakers are questioning the hold-up on the appointment and urging their Senate counterparts to expedite the process in light of continued daytime borderland murders, travel warnings and continued narcotics smuggling through Texas.
“Other members of the border know that you have to have direction as to what you do on the border,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. “They know the importance of [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] and Border Patrol, and you have to have the leader that can set that direction.”
Cuellar and U.S. Reps. Solomon Ortiz, D-Corpus Christi; Ruben Hinojosa, D-Mercedes; Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso; and Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, sent a joint statement this month to Baucus and U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, ranking members of the Finance Committee, urging confirmation.
“We have had the distinct honor of working with Mr. Bersin since April 2009, as he has served as the Homeland Security Department’s Assistant Secretary for International Affairs,” reads the statement. “Mr. Bersin recognizes that economic development goes hand-in-hand with ending violence.”
The Merida Effect
At today's meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Defense Secretary Robert Gates will discuss defense measures and the latest installment of the Merida Initiative with Mexican President Felipe Calderón, said Cuellar, the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Homeland Security.
Merida, or “Plan Mexico,” sends approximately $1.4 billion in training and equipment to Mexico, Central America and Hispaniola to aid governments in their efforts to combat drug cartel operations. The meeting will touch on the latest installment of the aid package, which Cuellar said would be lacking due to the absence of a CBP presence.
“I don’t think the Mexicans will look at that and say, ‘You haven’t filled that position, so you are not taking us seriously,'” Cuellar said. “But it would have been good for Alan Bersin to head over there and put his input in, because a lot of this has got to go through his department. Unfortunately we get to the implementation [without] having his input.”
When Merida was first introduced and signed in to law by George W. Bush in 2008, critics balked, claiming Mexican law enforcement agencies — inundated with corruption — would only use the maneuver to further that illegal activity. The criticism has waned, but the initial stages of Merida have been slow, Cuellar said, as the Mexican government and other foreign governments have received only a partial allotment. “You got to add a little speed, a little sense of urgency, because the Mexican drug cartels are not waiting for us to get our equipment so that they can get more violent,” he said.
In 2008, Congress approved $400 million for Mexico and $65 million for Central America, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. In 2009, it approved $300 million for Mexico and $110 million for the others. In 2010, the requested amounts are $450 million for Mexico and $100 million for the others. Cuellar said the government remains concerned about whether that money will filter down effectively through often corrupt state and local governments in those countries.
“The locals and the state [officials] on the other side are the ones who have been compromised the most,” he said. “Eventually, if we really want to do this right, we've got to go after that.”
CBP officials would undertake part of that cooperation and dialogue. Getting a director in place would go a long way, Cuellar said.