EL PASO — The federal government’s top border official, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin, fought back this week against heightened criticism of President Obama’s border security policy, saying the present-day border is more secure than ever.
At the same conference, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, responded to Gov. Rick Perry's bid for the White House by telling a reporter, “I have to go to the bathroom and throw up.” The congressman has long been a critic of what he says is Perry's misrepresentation of the border as a lawless territory.
Bersin, a keynote speaker at the Eighth Annual Border Security Conference at the University of Texas at El Paso, said Tuesday that the first line of defense against the political rhetoric painting the Texas borderlands as war zones is border residents themselves.
“It is incumbent to those of us who live and work on the border to dispel this myth that the border is out of control, that the border is unsafe,” he said.
Bersin, appointed by the president in March 2010, said the increase in illegal immigration on the Arizona border in recent years — and the political firestorm it has created — is the result of successful operations in Texas and California, which have driven illegal activity to the Sonoran desert. The illegal crossings in Arizona have prompted state leaders there to propose their own version of controversial anti-immigration legislation, leading several states — including Texas — to follow suit.
Bersin’s unorthodox counteroffensive signals that members of the president’s homeland security team are ratcheting up their defense as Republicans, including Perry, the newly minted presidential candidate, call Obama’s tenure an abysmal failure for border security.
Bersin did not mention Perry or other candidates in the narrowing field of GOP hopefuls by name but cited apprehension statistics as proof that current policies are having the desired effect. In fact, Bersin acknowledged, the border was in disarray under the country's last Democratic president, Bill Clinton.
“Lets go back to 1993, when the border truly was out of control, when, in fact, 1.8 million people were just walking across the border,” he said. “In 1993, 286,000 Mexicans were arrested crossing in to the country illegally [from Chihuahua into Texas]. Fast-forward to last year and the number is down to 12,000, under 12,000. And, in fact, that accounts for 80 or 90 percent of the people trying to cross here illegally.”
The same thing is true on the Tijuana-San Diego border, he said, where apprehensions fell to 68,000 in 2010, compared to 565,000 in 1994. The commissioner predicted Arizona would soon see the same success. And he credited the improvements in Texas to an effort initiated in the 1990s by Reyes, a former El Paso Border Patrol Sector chief, who Bersin said acted without guidance from Washington to enact Operation Hold the Line. The operation ordered U.S. Border Patrol agents to patrol areas directly across the Rio Grande instead of searching for illegal immigrants who had already entered the country.
“The lesson is that when you look at “la línea” [the line], the border is more secure than ever,” Bersin said. “Violent crime is down since 2000 by 17 percent in San Diego, 11 percent in Brownsville, 36 percent in El Paso.”
But the statistics are overshadowed by the ever-present vitriol injected into the debates over immigration and the border, Bersin said. While he conceded that the dynamics of the area and the proximity to Mexico present a unique challenge to U.S. border communities, he said the same standards they are judged by should be applied elsewhere.
That "does not mean we do not have incidents of violence connected to organized criminal activity based in Mexico or in the United States; we do,” he said. “But if the standard that is to be applied to any particular incident, one incident, two incidents or 10 murders that happened in El Paso make this an unsafe place, that’s a standard that Los Angeles would fail, that Boston would fail and Detroit would fail.”
Even recent instances where bullets fired from guns in Mexico landed in El Paso — at the City Hall offices and the UT-El Paso campus — should not taint the image of the border, he added.
“Yes, it does present certain circumstances when Paisano Drive [in south El Paso] can be affected by shootings taking place in Juárez, but that would be the same as saying if there is a shot fired across the Hudson River from Jersey City and it comes into Manhattan, that Manhattan is totally out of control," he said. "So we need to put this in perspective. We need to speak up.”
Reyes, whose office co-hosted the conference, has rebuked Perry on several occasions for painting El Paso as a dangerous city. After Perry appeared on Fox News in May and said the government’s border security effort was a “disgrace,” Reyes issued a statement saying Perry should stop pandering to the media and tarnishing the image of the border.
He then used Perry’s misstep on the campaign trail in 2010, when Perry said a car bomb exploded in Texas — it had actually exploded across the border in Ciudad Juárez — as proof that the governor is out of touch with border communities.
“I think Rick Perry’s worst enemy is himself. When he talks about bombs going off in downtown El Paso … I think it underscores a very shoot-from-the-hip mentality,” he said. “It won’t play well with middle-of-the-road people and certainly those of us who live on the border don’t appreciate our own governor throwing us under the bus like that.”