On Tuesday, President Obama nominated Department of Homeland Security (DHS) “Border Czar” Alan Bersin as the next Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the 57,000 person strong frontline agency. This ends what was a seemingly lengthy gap in political leadership at one of the nation’s flagship law enforcement agencies, but opens the door to a series of questions about Mr. Bersin’s role in the promised Obama Administration efforts to address immigration reform.
To say that Mr. Bersin has enormous professional shoes to fill would be an understatement. Since 9/11, CBP has been led by Robert C. Bonner, Ralph W. Basham and Jayson P. Ahern. Bonner was a five-time Senate confirmed law enforcement advocate who shined in merging separate agencies into CBP after 9/11. Ralph Basham’s career as a U.S. Secret Service agent for 30 years and the head of three separate DHS agencies is, if anything, even more impressive than Commissioner Bonner’s. Jay Ahern, the current Acting Commissioner and one of the premier Senior Executives in the federal government, worked his way up through the ranks during a 30 year career at CBP, has receive the rank of Distinguished Executive from President Bush in 2005 and was awarded the DHS Secretary’s Gold Medal for service in 2008. These are no security and law enforcement novices.
I don’t dwell on the resumes of the prior leadership to disparage Mr. Bersin’s somewhat less conventional resume for a top law enforcement position; I do so only to stress how serious and challenging this job is for any nominee. While Mr. Bersin clearly has knowledge of the current situation at our nation’s borders – some would say his last six months as the “Border Czar” were a tutorial period – his operational experience is more limited. However, his current reputation at DHS is positive and given his outgoing nature, he could be a solid selection to lead what is often known as “the face of homeland security” given CBP’s daily interaction with many stakeholders.
This leads us to two pressing questions about this nomination. The first is: Why was this political position so difficult to fill and left empty for so long? CBP is an enormous agency with an $11 billion dollar budget and a noble mission. More importantly, the Commissioner has an expansive office at the Ronald Reagan Building and the largest law enforcement air force in the world at his disposal.
Why was the eventual nominee in an office at DHS policy for six months with the “Border Czar” title?
I imagine the Obama Administration had trouble filling the post for two reasons. First, the presence of the “Border Czar” at DHS headquarters diminished the real power of the eventual Commissioner. Who wants to be the Senate-confirmed head of one of the nation’s premiere federal law enforcement agencies with operational authority effectively reporting to a policy guy at HQ?
Second, the Obama Administration’s commitment to the agency’s immigration-enforcement mission could be suspect as it has already rolled back enforcement efforts at CBP’s sister (or is it brother?) agency, Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement (ICE), to appease core administration political supporters. No one wants to volunteer for failure.
This initial question is doubly important when considering my second inquiry: What role will the head of CBP play in the promised immigration reform proposals we expect from the Obama administration in the next year?
After the failure of immigration reform in 2007, the Bush administration attempted to earn credibility with the American people by increasing Border Patrol staffing, building a 600 mile-long fence and strictly enforcing the nation’s immigration laws. Has the Obama administration selected an official who – working with Secretary Napolitano – will continue to push for strict enforcement in an effort to win over the public to some form of immigration reform?
I don’t know, but I expect the new Commissioner to focus on border security as it relates to drugs and weapons smuggling – which is a greater concern for current and former border state officials like Bersin and Napolitano – than dealing with immigration enforcement. This would be unfortunate for the 10,000 Border Patrol agents who joined CBP under the last administration and were promised the resources and support to secure our borders; they are too close to success to have new leadership change course.
I wish the Commissioner nominee the best of luck in what I hope is a speedy confirmation process. (I worked with Commissioner Basham – a man nominated by President Bush and endorsed by the late Senator Ted Kennedy – on his confirmation, and if Americans only knew how screwed up Congressional oversight of DHS is that the confirmation of the head of the U.S. Secret Service to be the Commissioner took more than four months, they would not sleep more soundly at night.)
America wants strong leadership on our borders, not only to keep us safe from terrorists, drugs and criminals, but to also earn credibility with our citizens so we can eventually have the immigration reform we so desperately need. Whether Bersin can give deliver that credibility and pave the road to reform will be his legacy within in the agency. Here’s hoping he can.