WASHINGTON – Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano named a former federal prosecutor Wednesday to the new post of “border czar” to oversee efforts to end drug-cartel violence along the U.S.-Mexico border and slow the tide of people crossing illegally into the United States.
Napolitano named Alan Bersin, a former Justice Department official who was charged with cracking down on illegal immigration in the 1990s, to fill the post at the Homeland Security Department.
“Alan brings years of vital experience with local, state and international partners to help us meet the challenges we face at our borders,” Napolitano said in a statement. “He will lead the effort to make our borders safe while working to promote commerce and trade.”
Napolitano was to hold a news conference introducing Bersin on a bridge over the Rio Grande linking El Paso with Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a city plagued by violence among drug cartels and Mexican authorities that has killed more than 10,650 people since December 2006.
The Obama administration has promised to target border violence and work with Mexican authorities to curb drugs and arms trafficking. Hundreds of federal agents, along with high-tech surveillance gear and drug-sniffing dogs, are being deployed to the Southwest.
Two weeks ago, Napolitano traveled to San Diego, Mexico and Laredo, Texas, to meet with officials about border enforcement and curbing violence spurred by warring Mexican drug cartels. Last year, customs officials apprehended 792,321 people who tried to get into the U.S. through the Southwest border, and immigration officials removed more than 369,000, according to Homeland Security statistics.
After announcing Bersin’s appointment on the Texas-Mexico border, Napolitano was scheduled to tour ports of entry in Columbus, N.M. and Nogales, Ariz. While there, she was to meet with local officials and discuss coordinating efforts to disrupt illegal smuggling and reduce illegal immigration.
Later, she was set to join President Barack Obama in Mexico City to meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon.
In his new capacity at Homeland Security, Bersin will work with international officials and their counterparts in the U.S. and border states.
From 1993 to 1998, Bersin was the federal prosecutor who led the government’s crackdown on illegal immigrants at the California-Mexico border. Bersin and Napolitano were both U.S. attorneys during the Clinton administration.
During his final three years, Bersin doubled as the Southwest border representative for the attorney general. Under his watch, the U.S. rolled out Operation Gatekeeper, a massive increase in border enforcement in the San Diego area.
Most recently, Bersin was chairman of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority. He also served under California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as education secretary.
“President Obama could not have selected a more qualified, more experienced person to join his administration — especially when it comes to issues along our southwest border,” Schwarzenegger said Tuesday night in a statement.
Earlier, Bersin was the superintendent of San Diego public schools. At the time, Hispanic groups decried the appointment and said Operation Gatekeeper caused a steep increase in deaths by forcing immigrants to attempt treacherous mountain and desert crossings into the United States.