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Alan Bersin is at home on a daunting frontier

The nominee to lead Customs and Border Protection sees an opportunity for 'huge change' even though Mexico's drug war has dramatically heightened tensions along the border.

November 06, 2009|Sebastian Rotella

NOGALES, ARIZ. — Alan Bersin is back at the border and on the move.

On the third day of a sprint through Texas and Arizona, a law enforcement convoy zooms into Nogales. Riding in a sport utility vehicle, Bersin scans a dusty landscape that he knows well: this desert town of 20,000 with its fast-food joints and discount shops facing the pastel facades and helter-skelter skyline of Nogales, Mexico, a city of 300,000 just south of the fence.

Bersin, a compact 63-year-old with the stride of a former star football player at Harvard, arrives at the Nogales station, the U.S. Border Patrol's biggest. His entourage hurries into a roll call room crowded with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, many of them Latinos whose small talk is sprinkled with Spanish.

Bersin is the federal point man at the border for the second time in his career and the officers' likely new boss, having been nominated for commissioner of Customs and Border Protection. He gives a pep talk in crisp tones tinged with his native Brooklyn.

"We will make a huge change at this border," he says. "You are here at a moment of history being made. You will tell your grandchildren about it someday."

The border czar has come to Arizona to assess a smuggling onslaught that generates more arrests and marijuana seizures than anywhere else on the international line. Smugglers use cranes to lift drug-laden cars over the fence; unemployed Mexican miners dig tunnels; cartel pilots fly above the oxygen limit. In Sonora state this summer, police found a Chevy Suburban containing victims of Mexico's drug war: 11 corpses chopped into pieces.

The two nations must seize a rare opportunity for progress, Bersin tells the officers. Encouraging questions and trying to put the group at ease, he jokes that his wife describes him as "often wrong, but never uncertain." He paraphrases the French poet Paul Valery: "The main challenge of our times is that the future is not what it used to be."

It's classic Bersin. Cerebral, combative and politically connected, he's at ease in the trenches of law enforcement. A resident and scholar of the border, he knows its extremes of squalor and beauty, hope and despair. He thrives on the singular energy of a region that others tend to fear, ignore or misunderstand.

"There is such a difference from everywhere else," Bersin said. "It's a place where nations begin and end in a legal and jurisdictional sense. And yet border communities live without reference to that in many ways. It's the idea of 'El Tercer Pais' [the third country] that makes it enormously attractive."


The son of a pharmacist, Bersin went to Harvard, where he befriended future Vice President Al Gore. He met the Clintons while at Yale Law School and Oxford. In the 1990s, he served as U.S. attorney in San Diego and was given additional duties as the Clinton administration's border czar. Then he detoured into public education, running the San Diego school district and holding the post of California education secretary.

This year, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano made him her special border representative based in Washington. In September, President Obama nominated him for the commissioner post. Customs and Border Protection, the nation's largest law enforcement agency, has about 60,000 officers guarding the nation's air, land and sea boundaries while trying to speed the flow of legal commerce.

"He has huge credibility with law enforcement, yet he gets the trade part," said U.S. Atty. Dennis Burke of Arizona. "With his experience, knowledge of the border, I don't think they've ever had anyone like this guy."

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration accelerated construction of fences, consolidated all border agencies into the new Department of Homeland Security, and expanded the Border Patrol to about 18,000 agents. Obama has promised to reform immigration laws, so Bersin will feel pressure to show results on border security.

"Him coming back to the border is like back to the future," said Charles La Bella, who was Bersin's deputy at the U.S. attorney's office. "There are very similar problems, significantly more pronounced. The violence has gotten everyone on edge. . . . He thinks there are solutions, that if the stars line up right he can do something. If anyone can do it, he can. But it's a daunting task."

Leaving the federal prosecutor's job in 1998, Bersin surprised friends and observers who expected him to run for public office. Instead, he became superintendent of San Diego schools.

"The quality of the public education I received in New York has been responsible for every success I've had in life," he said. "School reform was just coming onto the agenda. I responded to that."

He fired principals, overhauled the curriculum and received national attention. The Wall Street Journal called him education's version of Rudy Giuliani.

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