The commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agrees that Arizona's border needs to be better controlled, but he said completely sealing the international line is unrealistic.
"This is not about sealing the border," Commissioner Alan Bersin said Friday in Tucson. "Until we have a legitimate labor market between Mexico and the United States, people will attempt to come here to work."
To get that legitimate labor market, though, will take immigration-law change, he said. To get backing for it will require reducing the flow of illegal immigration in the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector - the busiest for apprehensions, drug seizures and border deaths for a decade - to levels similar to those of other sectors.
A steady decline in apprehensions in the Tucson Sector over the past six years is a good trend, but it's still unacceptable that the sector has more than three times as many as the next-busiest sector. However, with more agents, fencing and technology than ever before, the agency is ready, he said.
"We are also better prepared, better resourced, here and elsewhere, to accomplish the completion of this task, which is to achieve a secure border and one that is perceived as secure." But there is no numerical goal for apprehensions that would constitute a "secure border," he said. "Our job is to detect and apprehend the large majority of them."
Bersin met with the Arizona Daily Star during his visit to Arizona Friday. He weighed in on several topics:
On how Arizona's immigration-enforcement law, SB 1070, is similar to California's Proposition 187 of 1994: When California passed its immigration enforcement bill in 1994, the San Diego Sector was the busiest stretch of Southwest border. Today, the Tucson Sector in Arizona is the busiest. People have a right to have a secure border and a border that is perceived as secure," Bersin said.
"The political reaction to a border that is perceived as being out of control was (SB) 1070, as it was (Proposition) 187 in California. I don't think it's had any effect because of the judicial rulings," he said of SB 1070. "However, it's had a political effect of having mobilized attention on this sector, which is exactly what Prop. 187 did in California."
On the fact that smugglers can't as easily shift patterns along the Southwest border today as they used to:
"You've got a resourced Border Patrol and Field Operation that simply did not exist in the years we were building up the resource to the Southwest border. So trying to displace back to re-establish smuggling routes in San Diego is not going to be so easy, or in Yuma or in El Centro or in El Paso. They will try and there will be displacement, but it will not fall on the under-resourced sector."
On what's changed about smuggling since the 1990s:
"Mom and pop smuggling is over. You're not seeing the smuggling in cars through the ports, and you cannot get into this country illegally without a coyote. And the price of coyotes has gone up to $3,000."
On the Government Accountability Office critique that Customs and Border Protection doesn't have sufficient measures in place to evaluate the success of many of its programs, including highway checkpoints, fencing and the Mexican Interior Repatriation Program:
"I disagree with that. The way to measure success is taking the data in the way in which we aligned it here and then reviewing that in the context of the community reaction to enforcement effort.
"I agree with the GAO to the extent that they say the metrics are very hard. Law enforcement metrics are a perennial problem. But in the broad measures of success, you gauge them in the context of illegal immigration by increasing the number of people you are detecting, increasing the number of those people you are apprehending. . . .
"That's why the technology issue is so important on detecting entry. Otherwise, you don't know what's happening in the forest when nobody is there to see or listen."
On what needs to be done to slow border deaths in Arizona: "The best antidote is to deter illegal immigration. . . . Our overall goal of reducing immigration will, by definition almost, improve the problem."
The agency also needs to continue to coordinate prevention efforts with Mexico and strengthen its search-and-rescue teams, Bersin said. "For every person that has died in the desert, the Border Patrol itself has saved four or five people."
On StarNet: Find extensive coverage of border and immigration issues at azstarnet.com/border
Contact Brady McCombs at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4213.