Alan Bersin, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), looks at security and trade as not being mutually exclusive. During an interview at the Border Security Conference at UTEP, he described them as two different variables that do not compete.
Bersin oversees the operations of CBP’s 57,000-employee work force. He has the responsibility for fulfilling CBP’s mission of protecting the nation’s borders from all threats while facilitating legitimate travel and trade.
Commissioner concerning the CBP expansion here in El Paso, you spoke of the addition of 80 staff members. To what extent does this include staffing for the commercial lanes to expedite legitimate commerce coming to the United States?
Director Ana Hinojosa is one of our leaders in the cross customs and border protection nationally. We recognize there are two ways that we have to address the issue of increasing the flows of legitimate traffic. First we have to increase the number of officers and thanks to Congressman Reyes, El Paso will get its fair share of additional officers, but we also have to change our practice and actually increase the number of trusted travelers and trusted shippers.
To all the pedestrians, we say join the Sentri program. The Sentri pedestrian program you need to get in. Establish that you can be trusted and then you can move through the lines much more quickly. The same thing applies for shippers, we need for them to join the Customs Trade Partnership against Terrorism and get onto the fast lanes. This idea of risk management and traffic segmentation needs to take hold here in El Paso.
Working with Director Hinojosa and the customs border protection people, we think that could happen and make a big difference in the wait times here on the Bridge of the Americas and the other bridges.
There exists the $71 billion dollar economy between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. What does the business community tell you about their needs in balancing enforcement versus the needs of expediting commerce?
We look at facilitating legitimate commerce as a security program, because when we facilitate lawful traffic we can move that through and concentrate on the high-risk traffic. This is not just a nice thing to do for the economy although it has great benefit. It is about moving legitimate traffic because that gives us a better chance to find the dangerous traffic.
These programs, Sentri for the pedestrians, CT-PAT for the business, the El Paso community is all over it and we need to get people into those programs. I’ve encouraged Director Hinojosa, and Assistant Commissioner Winkowski has encouraged her to come up with innovative ways in which we can multiply trusted shippers and trusted travelers and we’ll work with the local community to do that.
There appears to be a dilemma between aggressive border security policy and an aggressive approach to trade policy along the U.S. – Mexico border. To what extent is there a risk of trade-offs in terms of benefits in either of those areas as we move forward in the near future? Do you and Ambassador Kirk review this situation?
This is a very important point. Let’s analyze what we’ve taken for granted, an assumption what most of us who have worked on the border have taken, which is that if you increase security levels by definition, as a function of logic, the facilitation and the movement of commerce goes down.
That was the governing paradigm the way we looked at this. Increase security, then the movement of trade goes down, I’m here to suggest to you, and I believe Ambassador Kirk would support this: We have to look at security and trade as not being mutually exclusive. They are not two different variables. These are not even competing variables.
But properly understood they support one another. Here’s the proposition and it is not a rhetorical trick, because after 9/11 we learned something very important. You’ll recall that right after 9/11 we basically stopped all the traffic on the Bridge of the Americas, as we did all across the U.S. – Mexican border. We threw every trunk open and in fact what happened was commerce came to a halt.
We understood something very fundamental which is that, if we look at every cargo and every person in the same way we will never have the kind of resources that we need to do the inspection. We will grind our economy to a halt.
Over the last eight years that CBP has been in operation, we’ve moved away from every trunk goes up, every person gets examined to rather making risk assessments about the danger and the risk presented by any particular person and any particular cargo. We tailor our enforcement strategy and response to the risk assessment we make as to whether or not the person or the cargo presents danger to the American homeland.
When we do this we segment out the traffic we trust and we move it quickly through so we can focus on those people and those things about which we either have derogatory information or we have insufficient information to make a judgment that they are to be trusted and to be moved.
The idea of accelerating legitimate traffic is the core of our approach and it’s not separate from security. The Sentri program, the CTPAT program, the global entry program that separates out trusted travelers and trusted cargo is a security program, because when we move that legitimate cargo we can then focus our resources at the line on those cargoes and people who are dangerous. This is a very, very important concept that we are putting into practice all across the U.S./Mexican border.
Some of the ranchers or others who live in the Rio Grande Valley south and east of El Paso and adjacent to the border report their personal experience doesn’t really correspond to what your remarks are saying. They say that they are living in a state of terror practically. What is your take on that?
If you look at the flows of people across the border, this is not to say we don’t have incidents of people crossing illegally. We do. But the notion that the flows are worse than they were 10 years ago is simply not the case. That is not to say we don’t have an obligation to the farmers and the ranchers in Texas or in Arizona.
Every time a rancher feels threatened, it’s a serious thing but we have to put this into perspective. What then should we say? Should the city of Los Angeles feel terror stricken when it has 300 homicides in a city of nine million people, and that’s lower than ever? The city of El Paso had 10 homicides. Think about what that means when you are next to the city of Juarez that has arguably given the stage it’s going through the most dangerous. But we don’t see the spill-over in terms of the violence, frequency or scale, that’s not to say we don’t have violence.
Border violence needs to be looked at in the context and the facts tell the story. Crime statistics tell the story over the last 30 years. Crime is down; the violent crime in El Paso is down 36 percent in the last 10 years. This doesn’t mean that when we lose one Mexican or when we lose one American that it isn’t a tragedy. Every time a rancher feels threatened it is something that should be of concern to us but we have to look at this in context, we have to see it in terms of the big picture, not the individual case.
In what ways are you concerned that border protection has become over politicized?
Mark Twain had a terrific line, he said, “Let’s get the facts straight and then you can distort them as much as you’d like.” The facts will speak for themselves. Creating a legitimate labor market between the United States and Mexico is a critical necessity for the next period in our history and the next period in our relationship with Mexico. This does require a secure border. We are moving toward that.
I believe that after the Tucson sector is brought under satisfactory control the political fever will subside as it did in California after 1994, as it did in El Paso after 1995, after Hold the Line became known to the community. We will go forward.
There are two other dimensions that have to be addressed: We need to deal with future flows of workers, so the economic needs of the American economy and the labor needs of the Mexican economy are met. Then we need to deal with something that is frankly a bipartisan disgrace, something that has happened on the watch of both parties since the 1980s, when President Regan signed the last comprehensive immigration bill in 1986, we did not deal with the issue of future flows of people.
So now after the amnesty of 1986 we have 12 million people here illegally in the United States, an estimated eight million who crossed illegally from Mexico. That is something the American people will not tolerate — another amnesty. We do need to address that in a way that calls out those who are criminal and do not play by the rules and make some kind of an adjustment of status for those who need to be adjusted into American society.
Those are very difficult issues but the first predicate is the notion that the border is actually not out of control. The facts are completely to the contrary. This border is under satisfactory control and will become so increasingly. Our job now as the debate continues is to sustain that progress and complete the job.