U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno on Wednesday named New Mexico's chief federal prosecutor as "border czar" to succeed former U.S. Atty. Alan Bersin, who used the largely symbolic post in San Diego as an attention-getter for border issues including a major crackdown on illegal immigration.
The appointment of U.S. Atty. John J. Kelly as Reno's special representative for the Southwest border took some California elected officials by surprise. But at a time when illegal immigration has waned as a hot-button political issue, there appeared to be little consternation about moving the position out of California.
"If this is a good man and I have the attorney general's assurance that California will be given continued attention, I can't ask for more," said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a persistent critic of U.S. Customs Service operations at the border.
Kelly, based in Albuquerque, will help coordinate a quilt-work of federal agencies with sometimes overlapping responsibilities along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
The 51-year-old Democrat has been the top federal prosecutor in New Mexico since 1993. He oversees about 50 prosecutors.
Bersin left the post of U.S. attorney for San Diego and Imperial counties in June to take over as superintendent of San Diego's public schools.
He was named the nation's first border czar, a semiofficial post, in 1995 after the border at San Diego was made the focus of a major federal crackdown on illegal immigration and drug trafficking. The media-savvy Bersin, a longtime friend of President Clinton, soon became the public face of Operation Gatekeeper and advocated for greater focus on border concerns, from reducing waiting time at the ports of entry to increased binational cooperation among local officials on both sides of the international line.
Though the post was designed to coordinate U.S. agency efforts along the entire border, Bersin spent the bulk of his time and energy focusing on the border near San Diego, once notorious for rampant illegal crossings and excruciatingly long waits to cross legally. Dramatic increases in Border Patrol forces, coupled with efforts to speed legal crossings, have resulted in a sharp drop in illegal immigration and faster commute times at the San Ysidro port of entry.
After Bersin's departure, it was not certain that a second border czar would be named.
But Reno decided that "the fight against illegal immigration, border crime and drug trafficking would be strengthened by having one person coordinate the efforts of all the Justice Department agencies," according to a statement announcing Kelly's appointment in Washington, D.C.
"I hope to heighten the inter-agency cooperation and border policy coordination that the attorney general has stressed over the past five years," Kelly said in a statement.
New Mexico, occupying about 200 miles of the border with Mexico, previously has not been a hot spot for border enforcement. But officials said illegal immigration there has increased recently in response to heightened patrols in Texas. Since October, Border Patrol agents have arrested about 63,000 suspected illegal immigrants in New Mexico--less than a third the number of apprehensions during the same period in California's Imperial Valley.
Feinstein, expressing "some surprise," said Reno assured her Wednesday that designating someone from another state "will not diminish" federal enforcement efforts along California's border with Mexico.
Feinstein said Reno told her that Kelly is the most experienced of U.S. attorneys on the Southwest border and well qualified.
U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), who takes a hard line on illegal immigration, dismissed the importance of the border czar position.
"These guys will come and go. I'm going to continue to build fences, add Border Patrol and leave the press conferences to the administration," Hunter said through a spokesman.
Chuck Nathanson, who heads the nonprofit San Diego Dialogue organization that promotes regional border matters, said he is unconcerned that the new czar will be based outside California.
He said that although Bersin helped get Washington to focus on border problems, key permanent reforms have been established. Among those are cross-border councils addressing issues such as public safety and water supply, he said.