A former U.S. attorney who oversaw a crackdown on illegal immigration on the California-Mexico border a decade ago will be appointed the Southwest border czar by the Obama administration, according to a Department of Homeland Security official.
Alan Bersin, who served in a similar post during the Clinton administration in the 1990s, will be charged with controlling illegal immigration and drug violence amid Mexico's ongoing war against organized crime, the official said.
By choosing the aggressive former federal prosecutor credited with taming a once-lawless area of the region, the Obama administration appears to be signaling that improving the U.S. response to the threat of Mexican drug cartels is a priority.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has said in recent congressional testimony and speeches that she is concerned about indications of a lack of cooperation and dysfunction among the many U.S. federal agencies combating the cross-border trafficking of weapons, drugs and migrants.
The appointment of Bersin is one of the keystones of her new strategy, the department official said.
"The position will focus on illegal immigration into the U.S. as well as southbound gun trafficking and cash smuggling," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the news of the appointment, first reported by Associated Press on Tuesday evening, has not formally been authorized to be disclosed publicly.
Napolitano is expected to name Bersin to the position today during a visit to the Southwest border.
It was not immediately clear what kind of authority Bersin will have over the myriad border agencies. The post is within Homeland Security, and Bersin will report to Napolitano, according to the official.
During his first stint as border czar from 1995 to 1998, Bersin oversaw the unprecedented increase in fortifications and enforcement along the San Diego-Tijuana border, which had become symbolic of illegal immigration run amok.
People poured across by the hundreds in nightly "banzai" runs, dashing through freeways and canyons. Miles of fencing and hundreds of new U.S. Border Patrol agents helped restore order. But the crackdown, experts note, only shifted immigration flows east, first to California's Imperial Valley and then to Arizona, the current epicenter of illegal immigration into the U.S.
Bersin was credited with improving relations with his law enforcement counterparts in Mexico, which experts note is key for achieving any long-term progress. "I think the message is that they are serious about trying to work with Mexico to address these binational problems," said David A. Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. "They want to have a go-to person that can coordinate on a broad range of complex issues."
After his stint as border czar, Bersin became the superintendent of schools in San Diego. In 2005, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Bersin secretary of Education.