'Border Czar' Ends a Highly Visible Reign

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The departure of the nation's first "border czar" in many ways marks the end of a clamorous chapter along California's frontier with Mexico. Title it "The Crackdown."

The next chapter awaits key new characters on the U.S. side, and it is unclear if the high-profile job of overseeing the country's southern border for the Clinton administration will be based here anymore. But there is little doubt that the story setting is starkly different--and the decibel level lower--than when the border was thrust onto the nation's front burner a few years ago.

To the many admirers of Alan Bersin, who resigned June 15 as U.S. attorney for San Diego and Imperial counties to run the San Diego public schools, the changes on the border are as irrefutable as before-and-after pictures. Fans credit Bersin, serving as the border's top cop and figurehead, with much of the transformation.

Canyons once crowded with illegal crossers are empty of all but sturdy new fences and the border agents who have poured into the region by the hundreds. Migrants no longer sprint en masse through the San Ysidro port of entry onto freeways. Commuters crossing legally face half the wait they endured before Bersin was appointed the administration's border point man in 1995.

"Things have changed greatly," said Imperial Beach homeowner William H. Adams, who seldom sees illegal migrants troop through his neighborhood anymore.

Officials on both sides of the border boast of unprecedented cooperation in regional law enforcement and other matters, in part because of wider latitude granted by the governments of both countries. Also of help was Bersin's budding friendship with the Mexican consul general in San Diego, Luis Herrera-Lasso. The new approach prompted formation of cross-border committees on issues including management of the ports of entry, water supply and migrant safety.

"The border is working better today for the region than most people ever remember it working," said Chuck Nathanson, who heads San Diego Dialogue, a research group on regional border issues.

That is not to say the California border is cured of the problems that attracted national notice. Arrests of undocumented immigrants in San Diego are on pace for an 18-year low, but nonetheless will probably exceed 200,000 this year. Illegal immigration in the county's rural eastern reaches and agricultural Imperial County has soared. Drug smuggling also remains rampant, and long-standing police corruption in Mexico is still a formidable barrier to joint law enforcement efforts.

Skeptics contend that the hard line on illegal immigration, launched in San Diego four years ago as Operation Gatekeeper, has steered desperate migrants into the bleak and often deadly back country. Rights advocates say the crackdown has resulted in unfair and sometimes brutal treatment of migrants.

How much responsibility for the gains or flaws rests with Bersin, a 51-year-old Democrat and longtime friend of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton? That is a matter of some debate, revolving around such intangibles as the power of his lofty administration connections, his considerable public relations acumen and, as in all things political, the simple matter of timing. One thing is for sure: The images of Bersin and the border became inextricably linked.

As U.S. attorney, Bersin held formal power that was mainly prosecutorial. He changed policies to bear down on repeat border crossers suspected of being smugglers, sparking criticism that noncriminal "economic migrants" would suffer most. He shifted the emphasis of drug prosecution to larger smuggling cases, leaving some cases involving smaller quantities to the district attorney. Under certain conditions, cases involving Mexican citizens are handled administratively as deportation matters, laying the groundwork for more severe charges if the suspects return.

But as Atty. Gen. Janet Reno's special representative for Southwest border issues (Bersin never liked the catchier "border czar" tag adopted by the media), he enjoyed a broad, if largely symbolic, mandate and a bully pulpit. Bersin was an aggressive border advocate, officials say, prodding Washington and coaxing a sometimes-fractious array of U.S. agencies into shared action on matters such as reducing waits at the border crossing.

Savvy about the media, Bersin often took to the airwaves, appearing regularly on Tijuana radio and television. A favored theme was the shared binational region he called "San Tijuana." Bersin, who has known Clinton since they were Rhodes scholars in the late 1960s, argued that order on the border meant safer living for residents on both sides. He frequently cited falling crime rates in San Diego since the stricter border enforcement.

His role as border cop made him a lightning rod for controversy. An outcry erupted over news of his new position as school superintendent among some Latino activists, who said his border role would frighten the parents of immigrant children. During a recent get-acquainted "town hall" meeting at a junior high school, Bersin found himself fending off attacks on his border work by a dozen or so critics.

Others depict Bersin's chief legacy in political terms, saying he wrested from Republicans the issue of illegal immigration after it emerged as a potent election wedge. Republicans along the border praise Bersin, though some grumble that the administration has hogged credit for get-tough policies.

"I build fences and put Border Patrol in the budget and they do all the press conferences," said Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon).

Some analysts say it would be hard to replicate the circumstances--and the timing--that accompanied Bersin on the job. Washington was paying notice. Spending on border enforcement in San Diego soared from about $111 million in 1993 to $241 million last year. Reno has visited the area 14 times since 1994.

Reno has not yet decided if the next San Diego federal prosecutor will inherit the role of border czar--or if the post will shift elsewhere. Bersin's top-ranking lieutenant, Charles G. La Bella, assumed the U.S. attorney's job on an interim basis, though Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer has yet to recommend a permanent replacement.

Just the fact that the border czar post could reside outside California reflects the altered conditions along the southern frontier, where officials say they have achieved a reasonable level of control in the once-chaotic San Diego corridor. Most of a new crop of 1,000 Border Patrol agents will be assigned outside California; none is destined for San Diego. Opinions vary among California's border-area congressional members on whether the country needs another border czar, but most seem in favor.

"I don't care what you call it, but you need somebody who specializes on the border," said Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-San Diego). "You can't walk away from that."

Bersin said he has suggested to Reno "various next steps" along the border, but declined to reveal them during a meeting with reporters shortly before leaving office. He said the decision would come down to balancing law enforcement needs in California with those in places such as Texas and Arizona, where new border initiatives are underway.

"It's a different border context than existed before, and that calls for different approaches than those that occurred," Bersin said.

Nearly everyone was surprised when word got out that Bersin was a contender for the schools job. In more than four years as U.S. attorney, Bersin won a reputation as hard-driving--detractors use less charitable terms--and a political comer. From early on, he showed an interest in border issues and is said to have lent crucial early support to GOP-led efforts to boost border funding.

The border designation came in 1995 as a bid to unify national border enforcement that had been segmented by state boundaries, interagency rivalries and inefficiency.

The timing was pivotal. Operation Gatekeeper was launched a year earlier in San Diego, which had become an emblem of illegal immigration run amok. Immigration was central to a convulsive 1994 debate over Proposition 187, the statewide ballot measure to deny certain public services to illegal immigrants, and was battled over in races that year for governor and U.S. senator.

By contrast, there has been scant and not very pointed mention of border enforcement during the early stages of state political campaigns this year. Although the economic recovery is certainly a factor in quieting debate over immigration, some analysts also say there is little hay to be made over border control now.

Peter Andreas, a border scholar at UC San Diego's Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, said Bersin "basically helped depoliticize the immigration flow in this politically potent 14 miles of border."

Bersin managed to do so without alienating local Mexican officials, for whom he served as an unofficial U.S. envoy.

"His Spanish is pretty good. I think he's created a lot of goodwill on the other side of the border," said Paul Ganster, director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at San Diego State University.

Bersin and Herrera-Lasso, the Mexican consul general, got together weekly at a coffeehouse in San Diego's Little Italy. Bersin filled a vacuum left during a period when the post of U.S. consul general in Tijuana changed hands several times. Herrera-Lasso said cross-border relations in the near future will hinge in part on the nascent binational boards and committees set up during the past several years.

Nathanson of San Diego Dialogue agreed. And he said government's focus on border enforcement gained side benefits--having more immigration inspectors helps traffic move faster, for example. Sustaining that focus may be another matter.

"Can it do that when there isn't a huge fuss over illegal immigration? I don't know," Nathanson said. "It's hard to get focused attention on the border as each agency goes its own way. We could find ourselves in the same entropy we had before."

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