Commentary: While Hispanic groups protested Bersin's appointment as Southwest Border representative for the Attorney General, back in 1995, due to the increased number of desert deaths of migrants from Mexico to the U.S. after Operation Gatekeeper began in San Diego, there is ample reason to believe Mr. Bersin's selection for this job is, from all appearances, a perfect fit.
As U.S. Attorney in San Diego back in the 1990s, Bersin worked closely with the Mexican Consul in San Diego, Luis Herrera Lasso. Together, they broke the mold, cooperating on a surprisingly large agenda of border issues that had never been dealt with on the ground floor, locally, by officials with capabilities on each side of the border. Normally border issues are forwarded to Washington offices and Mexico City, where they languish until an emergency forces someone's hand.
Herrera and Bersin met regularly to create a cross-border agenda dealing with cooperation in fire control, migration issues, law enforcement rules for cross-border hot pursuit, exchanging radio frequencies by law enforcement officials on both sides, interaction of local planning officials with cross-border counterparts, etc. In doing so they were the first local officials to understand the potential power of the Border Liaison Mechanism (BLM) formed in 1992 for consulates in twin cities along the border to deal with border issues. Unfortunately, not all border officials have been as talented as the Bersin-Herrera team, and the record of the BLMs has been spotty.
A caveat: Mexico experimented with the creation of a "border czar" shortly after President Vicente Fox took office in 2001. He made an excellent selection in naming former Baja California Governor Ernesto Ruffo Appel to the post and made it clear Ruffo enjoyed his backing. The experiment turned out disastrously, however, since the legislature refused to appropriate enough funds for the position and Ruffo was in the embarrassing position six months later of having no staff, little funding, and, more fundamentally, no authority to make things happen. Although he made a serious effort to generate a consensus in Mexican border communities about their needs, he was not given the authority to implement the changes he recommended. Instead, cabinet officers, jealous of their turf, often refused to cooperate with him, ignoring his priorities. Finally, Ruffo resigned in disgust.
Bersin has greater chances of success. For one thing, his mandate is not as vague or ambitious as the one Ruffo got stuck with, "economic and social development," dealing with all matters. He is working in one cabinet position, Homeland Security, dealing with border security issues, and to the extent he has the ear of Secretary Napolitano and President Bush, he may well have a considerable amount of authority to deal with these issues.
Hopefully, they will listen to him as he develops a framework to deal with border security problems. If he is anything like the Bersin of old, he will emphasize strong cross-border cooperation of officials at local levels, strong consultation and participation by local populations on both sides to generate trust and confidence in government actions, and transparency in the process.
Current border policy is broken, at many levels. At the conceptual and strategic level, it is wrong to put non-security issues like migration on a tight security agenda, imbuing what is essentially an immigration and labor policy issue with top-security status, and then placing the burden of legal responsibility on the migrant, and the burden of enforcement on the supply side, at the U.S.-Mexico border itself, which is not where laborers and employers meet to violate immigration law. This is especially true when those who hire unauthorized migrants--the demand side--are not treated as top security threats, a blatant hypocrisy which has resulted in the permanent introduction of a quarter million unauthorized workers into the U.S. each year, mostly poorly educated workers from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. Courted by employers throughout the U.S., demonized by other sectors of society, pursued relentlessly by law enforcement agencies and treated shabbily when caught, the presence of 11 million unauthorized workers, fully 5 percent of the entire U.S. labor force and one in four lower-skilled workers in the U.S., stands as a monument to a colossal failure of government policy--and not just border enforcement or security policy.
Just as bad, it is wrong to relegate gun trafficking to Mexico as a local issue to be dealt with largely through state law; saying, sorry, Mexico, there is little we can do, is not adequate. It should be placed firmly on the security agenda in our dealings with Mexico. It is also wrong to allow the security label to be an excuse to perpetuate taboos against public discussion of such matters as decriminalization, after decades of failure to reduce the supply of drugs on our streets. Open, transparent discussion is essential to really solving a problem. What is and what is not a border security issue needs a thorough reexamination, and changes in priority would undoubtedly require changes in strategy and operations.
At the operational level, the creation of the Homeland Security Department went a long ways toward centralizing dozens of agencies under one umbrella. It is a significant improvement, although there is still a long way to got before the agencies actually begin interacting seamlessly. Border Patrol, for example, still does not report directly to the Port Director, violating the concept of unity of command. Equally important, operational managers need to be aware of the need for local participation, not just on the U.S. side, but also on the Mexican side. Border security will be an oxymoron unless both sides of a twin city feel the border security apparatus on each side is working to protect them. The only way to achieve this is to make a serious effort to consult, and offer meaningful participation in the design of both border policy and policy enforcement practice.
Bersin has his work cut out, and we wish him the best. If anyone can bring the kind of fresh, optimistic, can-do attitude that is sorely needed in the Department of Homeland Security it is Alan Bersin. Now if only President Calderon would appoint Luis Herrera Lasso to be Mexico's border czar....
Buena Suerte, Mr. Bersin!