National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America

Blog & Updates

Advice for the New Commissioner

April 07, 2010 - Posted by Lena Graber

Commissioner BersinAmong President Obama’s recess appointments during Congress' spring recess was the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Alan Bersin.


In a statement, Bersin said, ““I am delighted to be at the helm of such a superb organization and look forward to getting to work.” 


There is a lot of work to be done, as he has heard firsthand from border communities. 


As Obama’s Border Czar during most of 2009, Mr. Bersin held several “listening sessions” with border communities to hear their concerns on various aspects of border policy, from the impact of Border Patrol in neighborhoods, to the controversial border fence, to detention conditions in short-term CBP custody, to wait times at ports of entry.  Now we are watching to see how Commissioner Bersin translates what he heard into change.  We offer a long “to-do” list to the new Commissioner: 


First, as the new head of the largest law enforcement agency in the country, Commissioner Bersin must improve the training of agents to guard against racial profiling and respect the rights of border community residents.  Adequate training for Border Patrol must include higher proficiency in language and cultural sensitivity, respect for human, civil, and constitutional rights, best practices in community policing, and environmental conservation.  It must also include a thorough knowledge of immigration law, including identification and protection for victims of crime, persecution, and trafficking.  


Second, CBP needs expanded and effective oversight to ensure that policies are followed and complaints are resolved.  Commissioner Bersin must develop an accessible, transparent, and effective complaint process.  This will require clarifying and publicizing the process, dedicating adequate staff and investigators, communicating with complainants, and providing public information on the aggregated resolutions of cases.  An effective complaint process could improve the agency’s oversight of field offices and agents, provide essential information about commonly raised issues, build greater public trust in the agency, and enhance CBP’s overall accountability to the public it serves. 


Third, CBP must improve its record of engaging with stakeholders.  CBP must establish regular and clear channels for communicating with and receiving concerns from local residents, leaders, land owners, business-owners, advocates, and other interested stakeholders on developments that affect their communities.  The constantly evolving circumstances on the border require a formalized and structured community outreach program, the stated task of which is not just to politely listen, but to work in collaboration with border stakeholders and residents.


Commissioner Bersin must enforce standards for short-term custody.  Although Secretary Napolitano and Asst. Secretary Morton have publicly committed to reforming the immigration detention system managed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, CBP holding facilities in the Southwest have not received comparable attention, nor has CBP acknowledged that its detention problem is just as dire.  Mr. Bersin can lead by recognizing the problem and making it a top priority to improve short-term custody conditions.


Commissioner Bersin must increase CBP's efforts to prevent border deaths.  Deaths of migrants in the southwest border region have continued to escalate, even as overall traffic has slowed considerably in the last couple of years.  This is a serious concern to communities and humanitarian groups all along the border, not to mention the families of the deceased.  As Commissioner, Mr. Bersin can steer resources to save lives.  A first step in stemming the tide of casualties would be is to increase resources for BORSTAR rescue teams and to improve collaboration with humanitarian organizations. 


CBP must invest in ports of entry, which have suffered significantly in recent years as enforcement attention has focused on operations between the ports.  Infrastructure and staffing at ports of entry must be improved in order to maximize the timely and efficient movement of people and goods across our borders, and to improve border security and the quality of life of border communities. 


Finally, Commissioner Bersin should make sure that CBP is doing its part to protect the environment, particularly along the southwest border.  America’s borders encompass an enormous range of ecosystems and habitats, and border enforcement and construction has significant environmental impacts.  CBP should comply with environmental statutes at all times.  Mr. Bersin should direct CBP to conduct a comprehensive analysis of the effects of border enforcement on border ecosystems, and use this analysis to develop a border-wide monitoring and mitigation plan.


That’s just the top of a long list.  We hope the new Commissioner is up to the task, and will take the concerns of border communities seriously.  Certainly comprehensive immigration reform would alleviate many of these issues.  In the meantime, what CBP needs now is more accountability, improved oversight, and increased engagement with the communities in which its agents operate.


Image from CBP.

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