With the body count climbing in Mexico's drug wars and illegal immigrants still crossing north, it's somewhat surprising to hear the nation's new border czar, Alan Bersin, say that the border isn't actually the problem. "It's better to think of the border as a thermostat for the larger, long-term issues that both our countries are dealing with," he says.
Until those larger issues are sorted out, Bersin's first order of business is to dial down the temperature on a pair of seemingly intractable problems along the southwest border: drugs and immigration. Neither will be easy to fix, given the often dysfunctional relationship between Mexico and the United States in general and over their shared boundary in particular. From his new Washington office, Bersin will be in charge of coordinating the efforts of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies combating the smuggling of guns, narcotics, and humans along the border. Issues of commerce and trade also will be in his portfolio. "It's a continuum of large problems that need to be managed so that neither side is subjected to the consequence of either illegal contraband or illegal migrants," Bersin says.
Solving just one of those issues would be a monumental task, so the energetic Bersin says his success will largely hinge on the cooperation of willing partners. There, too, the challenges are not insignificant. The Obama White House has yet to name an ambassador to Mexico, though Washington insiders say that the post will most likely go to Cuban-born Carlos Pascual, a Brookings Institution expert on "at-risk" states.
Mexico, for its part, has yet to find a comparable czar for its side of the frontier. Noe Ramirez, Mexico's last drug czar, was arrested in late 2008 for taking money from the drug cartels. A border czar was appointed in 2001, but he resigned two years later, complaining that he had little support for his work in Mexico City. And while the Mexican military does occupy parts of cities like Ciudad Juárez near El Paso, there is virtually no standing border patrol on the Mexican side of the boundary to stop the southward flow of illicit guns and drug money that funds and supports the cartels.
Tough assignments are nothing new for the 62-year-old Bersin. A star linebacker at Harvard, he was a Rhodes scholar in England in 1968, where he met Bill Clinton and current Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair. At Yale Law, he met Hillary Clinton. Bersin later became the U.S. attorney in San Diego. He has spent the past decade working in education. As superintendent of the San Diego public schools, he earned a reputation as a top-down reformer with few friends in the teachers unions. His reforms caught the eye of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who named him California's education secretary. Well connected in the Democratic Party, Bersin, during the last election, contributed money first to Hillary Clinton, then to Barack Obama.
Described by former colleagues as both a "consensus builder" and a "patient bureaucratic infighter," Bersin is fluent in Spanish, although he admits he can't quite shake what he calls his "gringo" accent. He'll need those skills at his new post, of course, but it isn't Bersin's first rodeo. In 1995, while serving as an assistant U.S. attorney under the Clinton administration, he was given a similar job as border czar by Attorney General Janet Reno. "They couldn't have picked a better man, both because of the lessons he's learned at the border and his temperament that's well suited to working inside Washington and with officers on patrol," says Chappell Lawson, a Mexico expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has worked with Bersin on border issues.
For three years as border czar, he focused primarily on illegal immigration through Project Gatekeeper, an effort to strengthen border infrastructure at crossing points around San Diego. But there were unintended and controversial consequences. Gatekeeper pushed illegal crossers out of the cities into the Arizona desert, where many perished. "You represent death to us," a Latino activist once shouted at him during a town hall meeting in San Diego. Bersin counters that U.S. border agents have paradoxically become the best protectors of illegal migrants, saving countless numbers from both the elements and ruthless human traffickers.
The current spike in drug violence—and the new united front from Washington and Mexico City against the cartels—present a rare moment of unity, Bersin says. "Now is a critical moment where both sides are committed to solve these complicated issues," he says. That's a willingness prompted, he says, by public acknowledgments from both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that some of the responsibility for Mexico's troubles lies north of the Rio Grande. Admitting that Americans bear "coresponsibility" for the situation, Clinton said during a recent trip to Mexico that more needs to be done. "Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers, and civilians," she said.
One of Bersin's first tasks will be deploying additional personnel and technology to the border—much of it pointed north. To combat illegal passage of goods north and south, U.S. inspectors will begin searching all southbound rail traffic. Vehicles heading out of the country, meanwhile, will now be subject to search by dogs and scanned by automated license plate readers in the southbound lanes at border crossing points. On the Mexican side, U.S. dollars have begun to flow under the auspices of the Mérida Initiative, which provides millions of dollars for law enforcement equipment and small amounts for projects like judicial reform.
Building the capacity of the Mexican government to solve its own problems will go a long way toward turning down the thermostat, as Bersin dubs it. "This is not about problems entirely going away," he says. "It's about managing them to the benefit of both sides of the border, with priority on our side." Until then, preventing the violence from spilling over the border and illicit material flowing south is the most the new czar can do.