Obama names Customs and Border Protection commissioner

President Obama has nominated the administration’s point man on Southwest border strategy to be the new commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, the White House announced Tuesday.

Alan Bersin, a veteran of federal border enforcement and a former San Diego schools superintendent, has served since April as assistant secretary for international affairs at the Homeland Security Department. Bersin, 62, is the department’s special representative for border affairs, working with Mexican leaders and U.S. border-area agencies on challenges such as drugs and immigration.

If approved as commissioner by the Senate, Bersin will take charge of about 57,000 employees who police the nation’s borders while struggling with a massive workload, grappling with the threat of corruption and trying to speed travel and commerce.

Customs and Border Protection encompasses the U.S. Border Patrol agents who guard the Mexican and Canadian boundaries, a far-flung army of inspectors working at ports of entry, and an air and sea interdiction fleet.


The agency faces a persistent terrorist menace as well as powerful drug mafias that have responded violently to a crackdown by the U.S. and Mexican governments.

Bersin will continue to advise Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on issues related to Mexico and the border, although he will relinquish the title of special representative, officials said.

“Under Alan’s leadership over the past several months, we have forged new international and domestic partnerships along our borders to strengthen security,” Napolitano said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing to work with Alan in his new position.”

Known for a cerebral yet hard-charging style, Bersin has alternated between law enforcement and education.


In the Clinton administration, he spent five years as U.S. attorney in San Diego. He led campaigns against illegal immigration and drug mafias at a time when turmoil at the border surged to the center of the political debate in California and the nation.

Appointed to the additional role of so-called border czar by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno in 1995, he worked to coordinate an array of often overwhelmed and fractious federal agencies at the U.S.-Mexico boundary.

In 1998, Bersin turned away from the border when he became superintendent of schools in San Diego, the nation’s eighth-largest school district. He gained a reputation as an energetic innovator but clashed during a seven-year tenure with teachers unions that resisted his efforts for dramatic change.

A Democrat, Bersin also has held posts under Republican bosses. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed him state secretary of education in July 2005. He served until December 2006, and then was named by San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders to chair San Diego’s regional aviation authority.


As an undergraduate at Harvard, Bersin met future Vice President Al Gore and starred in football. He knew former President Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton as a law student at Yale and as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford.

Before going into government, Bersin was a senior partner in the Los Angeles law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson and a law professor.