Thursday, March 12, 2009 | Alan Bersin, a former San Diego City Schools chief, U.S. attorney and “Border Czar” is a top candidate to lead U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, sources with knowledge of the selection process said.

The position, based in Washington, D.C., is a presidential appointment that requires Senate confirmation. If Bersin is nominated, passes a background check and is confirmed, he will take over an agency with a $9 billion annual budget. All told, the agency has more than 40,000 employees, including 18,000 Border Patrol agents and 20,000 customs officers guarding 327 ports of entry and total of 7,000-miles of border with Mexico and Canada.

Customs and Border Protection is the largest agency under the Homeland Security umbrella. The commissioner is responsible for facilitating trade and traffic while intercepting terrorists, illegal immigrants and drugs at the nation’s airports, seaports and land crossings.

Bersin, 62, one of San Diego’s most prominent, accomplished and controversial figures, is currently the chair of the executive committee of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority. He did not return several calls seeking comment.

He is a former secretary of education for the state of California, former superintendent of San Diego City Schools, former U.S. attorney in San Diego appointed by President Clinton, and former Southwest Border Representative, or “Border Czar,” under Attorney General Janet Reno during the Clinton Administration.

Bersin was appointed to the high-profile job of overseeing the country’s southern border in 1995 and left the post in 1998. Supporters credited him with cracking down on border crime — particularly repeat offenders — while reducing illegal crossings and wait times for motorists at the ports of entry. He also forged relationships with Mexican officials to combat mutual problems.

While Bersin was U.S. attorney during Clinton’s first term, he developed a reputation for being tough on border crime — prosecutions of immigrations crimes, and crimes overall, increased significantly. He was widely respected, if not always liked, within his office and the law enforcement community.

Bersin was most controversial during his tenure at the helm of San Diego City Schools from 1998 to 2005. His school reform package, dubbed “the Blueprint for Student Success” was embraced by some who respected his savvy, CEO-style leadership and credited him with raising test scores.

But he was reviled by members of the teachers union and some other school leaders and school board members who said he was dictatorial and lacked the experience in education that a superintendent should have.

Bersin became Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s education secretary in 2005 after voluntarily leaving the city schools post a year before the end of his contract, just as the teachers unions launched a campaign urging the board to oust him.

Extraordinarily well-connected politically, Bersin has known President Bill Clinton since they were Rhodes scholars in the late 1960s. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, and attended Harvard where he was a star linebacker, then Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. In 1974 he earned a law degree from Yale Law School — where he befriended Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Bersin has maintained ties with Mexico. He is the U.S. chair of a recently launched Task Force on the U.S.-Mexico border region, organized by the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations and the Pacific Council on International Policy.

A former colleague, who asked not to be identified because the announcement is not official or public, said Bersin is the right person for the job.

“He’s good on crime and he’s good on commerce. I think he was a strong advocate of law enforcement and maintaining rule of law at the border.”

Kelly Thornton is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact her directly at kellythornton7407@yahoo.com with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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