SAN DIEGO — The U.S. Border Patrol on Tuesday named Johnny Williams, a 24-year veteran who now heads the agency's El Centro sector, as the new chief of the San Diego sector, the busiest and most volatile jurisdiction on the Southwest border.
Williams, 48, inherits the high-profile job at a critical moment in the history of the agency, which has the daunting mission of guarding the 2,000-mile international line.
During the past two years, the traditionally overwhelmed, underfunded Border Patrol has received a burst of political attention as concern over illegal immigration has surged. The federal government has poured new agents and equipment into the agency, while trying to remake the Border Patrol's image and root out problems with hiring, internal oversight and alleged abuse.
"This is something we have needed for quite some time," Williams said. "That's part of the excitement I have. Now we see some resources coming our way in terms of agents and technology and national interest in immigration."
Williams assumes leadership of the two-month-old Operation Gatekeeper crackdown that has doubled the number of agents guarding the 14-mile San Diego-Tijuana line, which accounts for about half of all arrests. Statistics show that the operation has reduced illegal border crossing significantly.
Williams served for five months this year as acting regional director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's western region. INS Commissioner Doris Meissner said: "Johnny Williams played a key role in planning and supervising Operation Gatekeeper. He has clearly demonstrated the leadership and capacity to meet the challenge of managing and protecting our borders."
But Williams acknowledged that the real test will come in January, when border crossing traditionally increases--and when border tensions could flare as the result of the crackdown and approval of Proposition 187.
"I'm intensely interested in working with Mexico, the Mexican consul and counterparts," he said, adding that "Mexican officials here have been a key component in helping us reduce violence" in El Centro.
Williams, who also has served in El Paso and Yuma, said he instituted an in-depth training program for agents in alternative uses of force and other tactics.
During his four-year tenure in the sprawling desert turf of El Centro, he also contended with angry Mexican reaction to the shooting of a Mexicali youth on the border fence by an agent and the conviction of an agent on charges of stalking and raping Mexican women. He said those and other experiences have prepared him for the intense scrutiny the Border Patrol receives from the press and immigrant advocates in San Diego.
Williams succeeds Gustavo De La Vina, who was recently named director of the western region of the INS.