When President Barack Obama appointed Alan Bersin in March as the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, the country was embroiled in an intense debate over safe borders, millions of undocumented immigrants and the amount of manpower needed on the front lines of the drug war. Things haven’t calmed since then, and the passage of Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 has some in Texas clamoring for similar legislation.
Bersin was the keynote speaker at a Border Security Conference at the University of Texas at El Paso last week, sharing the spotlight with, among others, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual; Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan; and the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske. Bersin took a few minutes to talk to the Tribune about why he believes the Texas-Mexico border is secure, why deportations of criminal aliens have reached unprecedented levels, why trade between the U.S. and Mexico is as robust as ever and what he thinks motivates most undocumented immigrants to enter the U.S.
What follows is an edited transcript of the interview and audio of the entire conversation.
TT: Ambassador Sarukhan said [on Thursday that] the border is the most secure it’s ever been. Is that really true?
Bersin: Looking [north into] the United States, yes. It’s obviously not as secure ... looking south into Mexico, where the struggle with organized crime and the consequence of the civil war among the cartels, and between the government and the cartels, has created a violent situation. But north of the border, measured by the resources that are in place, measured by FBI crime statistics from Texas through California, there is no question that the border is better resourced and ... more secure, and the communities along the border are safe. Having said that, [I don't] deny that we continue to have, in certain places on the border, real vulnerabilities with regard to both illegal migration and the flow of drugs north and the flow of guns and cash south. That’s why we continue to strengthen border security. That’s why the supplemental bill signed into law by the president was so important: Because it recognizes that this is not a snapshot — it’s not a single result. It’s a process of securing the border over time that will continue to provide the safety and security in which a vibrant economy and cultural life can develop on both sides of the border.
TT: With the amount of agents and the amount of money dedicated to border security, why do you think it’s still falling on deaf ears with lawmakers in this very state [who are] going on national television [and] saying the border is almost like a sieve [through which crime] is just going back and forth?
Bersin: If you look at the trends over time, you can see the progress that’s been made. If you look at where the border was 15 years ago, and you look at it today in terms of resources and FBI crime statistics, you see a trend of improvement. But it is a work in process. When you continue to see, for example, [that] the flows of illegal migration in Arizona are down to 40 percent of what they were five years ago, it’s still at the rate of 170,000 people in [the current] fiscal year, moving toward 200,000 being arrested there, and the volume of drugs being seized at the ports of entry or between the ports of entry suggests that it continues to be a problem. But you have to compare that sector with what’s happened in El Paso, where the number of migrants who were arrested trying to cross illegally into the country is a fraction of what it was, [dropping] from 260,000 in 1992 to just about 14,000 in fiscal year 2009. The seizures of drugs are way down in El Paso. You have to analyze this on a corridor-by-corridor basis. It was no accident and was to be expected that the Arizona law actually occurred in Arizona and not in Texas, New Mexico or California. And you notice that neither [Texas] Gov. Rick Perry nor [New Mexico] Gov. Bill Richardson nor [California] Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have called for the enactment of a similar law.
TT: Gov. Perry, as you know, has been one of the most outspoken critics of what he deems [to be] federal inaction to secure the border. Have you reached out to him? Do you plan to reach out to him? And, if you do, what do you plan to tell him?
Bersin: [Department of Homeland Security] Secretary Janet Napolitano has met with Gov. Perry. They have discussed the matter. They have a point of view that’s very similar in terms of the need to secure the border. But this has been a bipartisan effort now for many years, and the criticism is one that is just part of the landscape. No one should look at the border as a finished product, and as long as we have a continued need to strengthen it, people [will] either look at it as the glass is half-empty or half-full. That’s the nature of politics.
Audio: Alan Bersin
TT: On the other side, some human-rights watchdog groups say it’s too much. [Some] feel that there is almost a military presence — which there is soon to be, with the National Guard — and, with beefed-up enforcement, that it might infringe on people’s civil rights and their everyday lives.
Bersin: Respect for civil rights and human rights is a staple of professional law enforcement. I think as we’ve grown, we’ve actually seen an increase in professionalism among border patrol agents and CBPOs [Customs and Border Patrol officers] as the years have gone on. The need to always protect civil rights and be cognizant of it [is] built into the DNA of CBP. The problems we have in that respect are not pushed under the table. They are dealt with forthrightly. But the professionalism of our border patrol agents and our CBPOs — we have to constantly underline the need for it. As far as militarization, I don’t believe that the deployment of the National Guard by our president militarizes the border. The National Guard has had a role on the border for 20 years or more. For that reason, when the president announced the deployment, Mexico understood that it was a further step in the strengthening of border security that had beneficial impact on our common struggle and shared responsibility to take on organized crime. I understand why people want civil rights to be kept at the forefront — I share that view. But I don’t share the view that says that civil rights are threatened or that the border is in danger of being militarized. It’s not consistent with the facts as I know them.
TT: For the current fiscal year, data from the Department of Justice shows that cases referred for prosecution are up, as are removals of non-criminal aliens and criminal aliens as well. Who gets the credit for that? Are these Bush-era policies that President Obama has kept in place, [or] has President Obama made a concerted effort to increase removals?
Bersin: President Obama understands [the need] to deal with criminal aliens in this country. It is one thing to have people cross into the country illegally — [and] it’s not acceptable. It’s another thing to have people cross into the country and commit crimes and constitute a clear and present danger to community safety. Those people need to be first identified, apprehended and either imprisoned or deported. The president is determined to see that the problem with people residing illegally in the United States is dealt with. But unlike in the past, he’s recognizing that, [with] as many resources as we devote to it, we still have to prioritize. You cannot pretend, with 8 million people illegally in the country, that we have the capacity to go through a mass deportation as opposed to focusing on those people who constitute a threat to the safety of our communities. That’s going to be a critical distinction [from] what happened in the past. We can pretend that it can all be done at once, in terms of waving a wand and [having] all the people here illegally out of the country, [but] it’s simply not the case.
TT: What do you believe those millions of people are here to do?
Bersin: The story of the United States is the story of immigrants, of people taking risks and coming to improve the lives of their families. What’s unacceptable is that they cross in a way that violates our laws and remain here in a manner that violates our laws. But I don’t think anyone is disputing the motive for the very large majority coming, which is why we need to concentrate on that relatively small number — but still a considerable number — who commit crimes. [They] are people we need to identify, arrest, prosecute, imprison and deport.
TT: The Port of Laredo and the Port of El Paso are ranked sixth and 15th, respectively, in the amount of goods that have traveled through year-to-date. This hasn’t been disrupted by cartel activity. What do you credit that to?
Bersin: The vibrancy and the vitality of the economic relationship between Mexico and the United States. Ever since the enactment of NAFTA, we’ve seen an explosion of trade between the United States and Mexico up to the level of just under $1 billion a day. That is the lifeblood of economic prosperity. Everyday life does not stop because of the activities of organized crime. So I am not surprised that we continue to see the growth. And as the economy rebounds, we’ll continue to see the growth in that trade. Our job is to make sure that we lower the transaction costs and make it safe and secure so that we get the benefits of a secure border but also a border that works from the standpoint of economic prosperity. Life goes on, and life on the U.S.-Mexico border means exchange and commerce.