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In March, President Barack Obama tapped Alan Bersin to be commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency charged with securing the country’s borders and managing cross-border trade.

Bersin, who’s spent much of his career in San Diego, inherited the border’s top job amidst surges in drug-related violence that have fueled public concern that the U.S.-Mexico border presents an imminent safety threat.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates lawmakers’ response to those concerns than the continued growth of Customs and Border Protection. The number of Border Patrol agents has more than doubled since 2001 — there are more than 20,000. Customs and Border Protection’s budget was more than $11 billion this year. It is the largest law enforcement agency in the United States.

That growth, Bersin believes, has been key in achieving greater security in the United States. Just 20 years ago, he said, San Diego’s border was perceived to be “not under control,” much like the perception he said pervades Arizona today. That’s no longer the case here, he said, attributing the success to Customs and Border Protection, which has 3,300 Border Patrol agents and 2,000 customs officers in San Diego.

As commissioner, he said his strategy to protect the border relies on facilitating legitimate travel and trade by filtering out low-risk crossers. That, he says, allows agents to focus on people and objects posing potentially greater risk. Programs like the NEXUS and SENTRI fast lanes for pre-screened crossers, are designed to do that. So are recent requirements that all border crossers present valid passports.

Bersin visited San Diego last week. We sat down to talk about the role he envisions for Customs and Border Protection, some of the criticisms the agency faces, and the outlook for border security in the coming years.

How do you define control of the border?

It’s a combination of crime statistics. San Diego, El Paso and Phoenix are among the safest cities in the United States measured by FBI crime statistics. It’s also a matter of subjective perception. People’s perceptions have a certain reality in their own. You can argue with them, but you won’t persuade them that they don’t feel unsafe when they do.

What is the agency’s goal here?

The job ever since 9/11 is to keep dangerous people and things away from the American homeland. The job is to deal with threats, whether it’s air cargo or illegal entries from Mexico or Canada, terrorism, exposure to drugs, products that violate intellectual property laws. A whole gamut of dangerous things we’re designed to stop.

The argument I make is we can’t do that job effectively without promoting lawful commerce and facilitating the movement across the borders of people and passengers and cargo.

Why?

Looking for dangerous people is like looking for a needle in a haystack. There are only two ways to find a needle in a haystack. You can get very specific intelligence that tells you where in the haystack it is, and reach in and pluck it out. That happens occasionally.

The more common way is to make the haystack smaller. If 99-plus percent of transactions involving people and cargo involve lawful cargo and people, what you want to do is segment the traffic. Separate out the ones you’re confident about because you have information about them. You can expedite their movement to put the focus on people or cargo about which you either have derogatory information or about which you have insufficient information to make an adequate safety judgment. Promoting lawful traffic is the purpose of the SENTRI program (which provides faster crossings for pre-approved travelers). The purpose of the fast lane at the border is not only to help improve the American economy but also to focus our scarce resources and attention on high-risk people and passengers.

At the same time you’re trying to do that as an agency, there’s also been a huge increase of resources for enforcement, to keep out drugs and weapons and undocumented immigrants. What is the interplay between those two goals?

They’re perfectly consistent. People used to think it was a zero-sum game — that if you had increased enforcement, by definition you had decreased facilitation of movement of lawful traffic. But the two go hand in hand. Focus on effective enforcement means facilitating lawful traffic so you can focus on the high-risk traffic.

You say one of the goals is to allocate resources effectively. Operation Streamline, a border enforcement program implemented under the Bush administration, tries to deter illegal immigration by prosecuting everyone who’s caught. But a UC Berkeley study found it placed a huge burden on the federal court system and made it hard for prosecutors to target real threats. It also found that in places like Arizona, where this is done, the decrease in apprehensions was smaller than in a place like San Diego, where the U.S. attorney refused to implement it.

When I became U.S. attorney here, I eliminated the misdemeanor prosecution of illegal migrants. We eliminated that in favor of criminal aliens who had committed serious felonies and were subject to prosecution because they re-entered after having been deported. Having said that, I’ve seen studies too, which show that there has been a deterrent effect.

My instinct in terms of what I’ve seen in CBP is that there is a deterrent impact on the attempted return into the United States. Punishment has a deterrent impact, but not on every potential violator. I tend to agree in terms of prioritizing consequences. We have to have a system that identifies degrees of culpability but also attaches to that violator a consequence that is best calculated to have a deterrent impact.

We’re doing a lot of that at CBP. It involves prosecution, repatriating people to the interior of Mexico, having people bused to the physical extremities of our own border. For me, we should be spending our prosecution dollars on those cases that would have the greatest impact on reducing illegal migration. Sometimes that means prosecuting the migrant who’s tried eight times. Sometimes it means prosecuting the smugglers. It used to be that people could come into the country without a coyote. Human trafficking is now essential for the illegal act and illegal entry to occur because of the heightened enforcement.

So is enforcement fueling this illicit business of human trafficking, which is closely linked with border violence?

Well, there’s something a little oxymoronic about saying that if you increase the enforcement and make it tougher for people to commit a crime, and therefore they hire more people to help them commit a crime, that there’s something negative about that. I don’t follow it. The fact is that if we are ever to have comprehensive immigration reform in this country and have a legitimate labor market from Mexico, we have to have a border that works. We can’t have people who constantly jump the queue to get into this country. I recognize that the economic pull — and the push from Mexico due to industrialization — creates flows of migrants into this country.

The question is how to minimize that and change immigration laws to create a legitimate labor market between Mexico and the United States that would change the border forever.

After the midterm election, it would appear that immigration reform might be dead for at least two years if not six.

I know the president remains completely committed to changing the immigration laws of the country, but one of the basic requirements is that there be a border that is not only under control, but perceived by the American people to be that way. Every survey and indication is that that is a prerequisite for changing immigration laws.

Immigration reform would theoretically decrease the need for as much enforcement as is currently happening. But until that happens, whether that be next year or six years from now, will the focus continue being on enforcement?

Enforcement in the way that I described it — segmenting traffic according to risk. Moving lawful traffic across the border quickly, and focusing your attention on harmful people and things about whom you don’t know enough.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528 and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.

Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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