CBP chief touts teamwork in securing border
The chief of federal border enforcement hailed an 18-month old program of teamwork between local, state, tribal, federal and Mexican authorities for making the border safer.
The number of illegal aliens crossing the border is down, and the seizure of illegal drugs is up, but "there is also considerable unlawful behavior," he said.
Law enforcement is "prepared to deal" with the threat of increased violence by drug cartels, said Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin said Tuesday.
While declining to predict if smugglers will become violent in Arizona as they have south of the border, cartels "will make a stand" because of the increasing pressure on them, Bersin said.
But, "violent crime in border communities has remained flat or fallen over the last decade," Bersin said, noting that "some of the safest cities in America are in our border states," including Phoenix, San Diego and El Paso.
The Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats was created in late 2009 by the Department of Homeland Security to increase cooperation between law enforcement agencies in the border region, Bersin said.
ACTT is "an unprecedented effort to secure the Southwest border," he said, calling it an "attempt to be smart and effective in enforcing immigration laws."
Some 60 federal, state, local and tribal law agencies are working together in Arizona to "deter, disrupt and interdict" human and drug smuggling operations in a "cooperative enforcement approach," Bersin said.
Bersin pointed to successes in securing the border, saying that in 2010, 212,000 illegal aliens were apprehended, down from 616,000 in 2000.
"This year we will drive that number down again," he said. "We will force the smuggling organizations out of their entrenched positions."
Since the ACTT began in Sept. 2009, Bersin said border agents have:
"We needed to build a team with local law enforcement," Bersin said. "We're actually seeing the results of teamwork."
"This is what the ACTT is intended to accomplish and it's a record of which we can be proud," Bersin said.
"Statistics tell a story, but they don't tell the whole story," Bersin said.
"It's the quality of life, it's what people report in their daily life in border communities, it's the perception of that safety and security that's equally important," he said.
The mayor of Nogales, Ariz., will tell you it's safe and secure there, he said.
Bersin, speaking at a press conference at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, said the ACTT hadn't been publicized because law enforcement agencies wanted to program to prove itself.
"It was the preference of law enforcement leaders at the federal, state, local and tribal levels that we let our deeds speak," he said.
They wanted to demonstrate "how critically important this kind of collaboration and cooperation can be can be," he said.
Although the press conference was billed as an "important announcement," ACTT has been mentioned by officials in the past. A year-old news report on cross-border law enforcement efforts was sparked by the program, and the local-federal partnership has been referenced in Congressional testimony, agency briefings and news releases for months.
Bersin himself pointed to the ACTT in a November speech.
Armed conflict predictions?
Tuesday's press conference followed criticism of federal border enforcement efforts by some Arizona sheriffs.
Cochise County Sheriff Larry A. Dever and Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu told state lawmakers last month that troops are needed to secure the border.
Babeu later predicted armed conflict with drug cartels in Arizona within two months. A gunbattle between his deputies and smugglers is likely, because some bandits looking to hijack drug loads are impersonating police, he told a Republican women's club in Awatukee.
Babeu said smugglers may confuse law enforcement with other gangs trying to steal their drugs.
"We are prepared to deal with that threat," Bersin said, replying to a question about Babeu's prediction.
"They will make a stand here to try to preserve these smuggling routes" despite the increased pressure from the "unprecedented challenge" to them, Bersin said.
There are "enormous threats to our law enforcement agents," he said. "The death of (Border Patrol) Agent Brian Terry is witness to that fact."
"Officer safety, after the safety of the communities of Arizona, is our number one job," he said.
"I would say to Sheriff Babeu, that we are prepared for any threat. I wouldn't make any specific prediction, but this is a threat that we recognize and we are prepared to meet it."
"This is part of the restoration of the rule of law, to actually deliver, through the brave actions of the people of law enforcement, a safer and sounder security for the people of Arizona," Bersin said.
Bersin said the increase in the amount of drugs seized is a short-term effect of better enforcement. He expects the seizures of drugs to fall over time, just as the number of illegal aliens apprehended has fallen, he said.
Authorities said that the program has facilitated information sharing and coordinated operations.
"These results would not have been possible if each agency had worked alone," said Randy Hill, Tucson Sector chief for the Border Patrol. "Communication amongst these agencies is critical to our success."
Increased funding has brought more agents and equipment to the border enforcement effort, said Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent in Charge Matthew Allen, a 20-year veteran.
"I've never been here with as much resources as I have under my leadership right now," he said.
"We're doing business in ways we've never done before, partnering in ways we've never partnered before," Allen said.
The federal government has granted $123 million to local agencies over the past three years for border enforcement, with $34 million going to Arizona law enforcement, Bersin said.
"We will continue to request additional assets" as needed, Bersin said.
Operating on the model started in Arizona, other ACTT partnerships are operating in New Mexico/West Texas and elsewhere.
"Our efforts extend deep into Mexico," Allen said, with U.S. agents working with Mexican authorities inside that country.
Some Mexican officials are embedded in ICE offices in the U.S. as well, he said.
Bersin said the two countries are working to develop a "shared solution to common problems, and not be engaged in pointing fingers."
Bi-national port security committees at the local level are an example of cross-border cooperation that is increasing enforcement effectiveness, he said.
"You cannot disconnect what happens on the U.S.-Mexico border from what happens in Tucson, Phoenix and Flagstaff," Allen said.
The goal is to "make Arizona as much as an unfriendly place as we can for criminal organizations," Allen said.
"The days of voluntary returning of illegal aliens is over in Arizona. If you come here, you will have a consequence," Bersin said.
Illegal entrants may face jail, being flown back to the interior of Mexico, or being "bussed to the far extremes of our border," he said.
"No more returns without consequences if you act illegally when crossing this border," he said. "Illegal activity, illegal crossing will not be tolerated in Arizona."
"Border safety and security doesn't mean sealing the border so that not one single illegal alien comes across," Bersin said. "This is perfection to which we do not aspire."
"We want to deter, and we want to stop, the flows of drugs and aliens coming across," he said. "The job is not done, but the trend is right."