‘Border Czar’ Alan Bersin believes immigration reform should not focus entirely on border security or a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants. Bersin, the recently appointed chief of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), is promoting vigorous enforcement of laws designed to weed out immigrants who have committed serious crimes as well as employers who exploit cheap labor.
Speaking on October 13 at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington D.C., he said that while security on the southern and northern borders has improved, more can be done.
“We currently have immigration laws, and these laws can’t be ignored,” said Bersin, who was put in charge of the federal agency of about 57,000 people in March. “We must enforce our laws in a serious and sensible way…We must focus on those who are here illegally and who are committing serious crimes. It also means that we must go after employers who are exploiting illegal labor.”
Bersin did not make any direct reference to recent news involving California Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman and TV commentator Lou Dobbs. They are the latest public figures to face accusations that they knowingly employed undocumented workers to serve their families. Both Dobbs and Whitman have been outspoken against illegal immigration.
Bersin said the borders have never been more secure, although a portion near Tucson, Arizona “remains our greatest challenge” with traffickers exploiting the rough terrain to elude authorities.
“Approximately half of all illegal entries occur across the 260 miles of border in this sector,” he said. In response, the CBP is shifting resources and capability there.
He said arrests along the southern border were down 17 percent (463,000) from the previous year. A huge decline of 57 percent (1.1 million) was reported from the period 2004-2006, shortly after the CBP was created in 2003.
Citing the FBI and local officials, including the mayors of El Paso, Texas and San Diego, California, Bersin said crime along the border is the “lowest it’s been in a generation.”
The U.S., he maintained, is working “more closely than ever before” with Mexico to stop the illegal movement of drugs, bulk cash, guns and human trafficking.
As for the northern border, Bersin said cooperation between the U.S. and Canada is “strengthening.” He said the U.S. and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have engaged in “deepening” collaboration at ports of entry and on land cargo pre-clearance security.
“Strengthening our cooperation with Canada, just as we have with Mexico, will help us protect our homeland,” he said.
Bersin said the CBP’s progress can be attributed to the work of more than 20,000 border patrol agents and another 20,000 CBP officers at different ports of entry. He did not discuss how the manpower is distributed between the two borders, except to say each has its own distinct characteristics and challenges, “and we must tailor our approach to meet the unique threats, challenges and opportunities.”
On the southern border, he said the CBP has completed about 600 miles of fencing, adding more technology in the form of infrared and seismic sensors, video surveillance, and mobile systems. On the northern border, five airwings were established to respond to maritime“incursions.”
By making the borders safe, he said the CBP is doing its part to lay the groundwork for immigration reform. But he strongly argued that border management should go hand in hand with more sustained enforcement of existing immigration laws. He echoed the standard line about the “broken immigration system,” and said neither mass amnesty nor mass deportation would fix the problem. That’s not what many Americans want, he asserted. “What the American people agree on is that every side has to be held accountable.”
That means greater responsibility on the part of employers not to exploit undocumented workers, and for those immigrants to acknowledge they broke the law, pay a fine, and learn English before they are granted citizenship, Bersin said.