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Navarrette: Border czar setting sights south

Alan Bersin

Alan Bersin

Alan Bersin is back in the headlines and back to pounding a familiar beat: the border.

Last week, the Obama administration named the one-time rising star in the Clinton administration Justice Department as the nation’s “border czar.”

Bersin had a similar gig in 1995, when – while serving as U.S. attorney for San Diego – he was asked by Attorney General Janet Reno to oversee the Southwest border.

A former classmate of Bill Clinton’s at Oxford and Yale Law School, Bersin was so connected that he often was mentioned as being on the short list to replace Reno if she had stepped down.

His duties were to try to lead the crackdown on illegal immigration by overseeing border enforcement from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas. And, although Bersin bristled at the characterization, the position became known as the border czar.

Now Bersin is starring in the sequel. A Homeland Security official described Bersin’s new job as an “assistant secretary” position. This time around, Bersin will be higher up the chain of command with direct access to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

He’ll be responsible for tackling illegal immigration but also overseeing the administration’s response to drug trafficking and cartel violence, working closely with both U.S. and Mexican law enforcement.

This might be too much for any one person to juggle. Now is the right time for a border czar, but the immigration issue is a morass all its own that threatens to take up so much time and attention that the even-more-pressing problem of curtailing drug violence could be shortchanged.

Besides, the very title – border czar – is a tad misleading because Bersin probably won’t be paying much attention to the U.S.-Canadian border. With immigration reform on the agenda and the Mexican drug-cartel violence fueling kidnappings and murders in U.S. cities, the border czar will be looking south.

About that, Mexican officials are likely to have mixed feelings. They like the fact that the United States has finally begun to take Mexico’s drug war seriously. But it has always irked our neighbors that we tend to view them with varying degrees of pity, fear and contempt.

As such, it will not set well with Mexican politicians or the Mexican media that the Obama administration thought it necessary to name a border czar before naming a U.S. ambassador to Mexico. While an ambassador builds bridges, a border czar builds fences.

Despite the fact that no formal announcement has been made, the ambassador job has reportedly been offered to Cuban-born Carlos Pasqual, vice president of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

The former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine specializes in studying “at-risk” states. That tidbit will also make the Mexicans wince, since they’re extremely sensitive about Americans affixing such a label to Mexico.

While Mexican officials might have mixed feelings about the United States having a border czar, many people in San Diego who are familiar with Bersin and his stint as U.S. attorney in the 1990s also have mixed feelings about him.

Because he aggressively ramped up the office’s prosecutions of felony border crossers – those illegal immigrants who cross more than once – some Republicans consider Bersin one of their favorite Democrats.

Meanwhile, in part because he has always been considered politically shrewd, some on the left consider him a DINO – Democrat in name only. Neither of those things has hurt his political career in conservative San Diego County.

But there is another side to the story. Over the past few years, I’ve talked to a number of immigration lawyers and criminal defense attorneys who blame Bersin for needlessly clogging the courts with prosecutions of low-level immigrant violators.

And immigration activists say Bersin helped “militarize” the border by implementing 1994′s Operation Gatekeeper, which increased border fences and added more than 1,000 Border Patrol agents to the San Diego sector. The crackdown pushed more illegal crossers farther east into Arizona, where many of them perished in the desert.

So just who is the real Alan Bersin? His supporters in the local establishment and buttondown business community call him a pragmatist who is brave enough to challenge convention. But his critics call him an opportunist who proved that Democrats could be just as adept as Republicans at exploiting illegal immigration for their own advancement.

Americans need to find out which one of those characterizations more aptly describes our new border czar.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union-Tribune. E-mail him at: ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com

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