Hanging with the Border Sheriffs in Yuma

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U.S.-Mexico Border Czar Alan Bersin paid border sheriffs a visit yesterday in Yuma at their annual southwestern border sheriff’s conference.

What in the @$#& am I doing in Yuma you ask? It’s 103 degrees today.  I’ve asked myself that question a couple of times since I arrived here to cover the conference. Especially since I’ve come down with some terrible cold – I don’t think it’s the dreaded ham fever as we call it jokingly around the del Bosque household – no offense to pork products.

Let’s just say it’s a long story (well not that long) that will soon be told in an upcoming issue of the Observer. Stay tuned!

So what was on Bersin’s mind?  A pretty wide range of things starting with embracing 287 (g) (I’ll explain in a little bit), offering a helping hand to Mexican law enforcement and accepting that social networking should be a part of law enforcement.

The border sheriffs are a tough audience. They are a no nonsense bunch of blue-collar guys who wear handcuffs on their belts and pack heat. When they don’t like something they start to grumble or check their phones for messages. Some just close their eyes and take a snooze.

Bersin wears a tie and has a chummy yet absentminded Ivy League college professor demeanor. He’s no stranger to a podium. At times it seemed like he was lecturing a class of college freshmen.

At least he doesn’t show up in desert fatigues like he’s visiting Afghanistan. Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and the previous Bush Administartion officials were very fond of khaki ensembles.

Bersin does travel with more handlers than Cher, however.  He was trailed by at least 10 Border Patrol and government public affairs officers.  I tried to ask him a question after his presentation and they waved me away and whisked him out the back door of the Indian casino where the sheriff’s conference was being held.

I looked around the hallway. It was just me and two local TV camera crews for chrissakes, not a ravenous media pack.

In contrast Ariel Moutsatsos, a special advisor to Mexico’s attorney general showed up alone after a flight from Mexico City to brief the sheriffs on Mexico’s efforts to fight drug trafficking. Several officials from the Mexico’s attorney general’s office have been assassinated for investigating cartel crimes in the past few months.  Of course Moutsatsos is much safer in Yuma than Juarez but I was surprised to see him travelling alone. Maybe Bersin could have shared some of his crew with Moutsatsos?

Anyway, back to Bersin’s speech. He made a pitch that Sheriffs start using 287 (g) under DHS’s new guidelines. I haven’t read these new guidelines yet. But here’s the controversy over 287 (g) in a nutshell (folks, please correct me if I am wrong): many human rights and immigrant advocates and some law enforcement hate it because it means they have to do a federal immigration officer’s job. In the past it has been very controversial because some law enforcement officials used it to deport undocumented immigrants in their jails. This undermined trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement.

Bersin argues that many communities will be okay with 287 (g) if it is used to deport criminals only and not people who have committed a civil offense by crossing illegally to work in the United States:

“287 (g) is not about using immigration law to pursue a painter or a construction worker. Yes those people acted illegally when they entered this country…but this can be a tool to remove dangerous criminals from other countries.”

Bersin said that for many local officials 287 (g) has been a “political nightmare.”

“I am asking you to be open. We need to deal with the perception among law enforcement that 287 (g) is a political nightmare for local officials and the best people to persuade them that it is doable are the local sheriffs.”

He also asked the sheriffs to put aside their negative experiences and prejiduces against Mexican law enforcement. He suggested that the sheriffs make an effort to train law enforcement agencies in Mexico. (He didn’t explain whether Mexico would welcome U.S. law enforcement training.) Bersin called Mexican President Felipe Calderon one of the bravest political leaders since WWII for his battle againt narco traffickers and against government corruption.

“Here is a political leader that has basically acknowledged that state and local law enforcement is unreliable and corrupted. It’s an extraordinary admission for a political leader to make,” he said. Bersin said Calderon was using the Mexican Army for basic public safety purposes until he could rebuild law enforcement.

He predicted it would take Mexico at least a generation to root out the corruption and rebuild law enforcement. He equated it with the U.S.’s own battle for many years to fix corrupted law enforcement agencies. “We raised the pay, the status and the education and created accountability systems. It took us a long time in some agencies to create honest law enforcement,” he said.

He told them that in an effort to coordinate more with Mexican officials, the new Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske who is the former police chief of Seattle has invited several law enforcement officials from Mexico to the upcoming International Association of the Chiefs of Police conference in Denver in October.

“I’m asking you to seek out honest cops in Mexico, local heroes and put out your hand to the honest effective law enforcement,” he said. “I hope you will embrace them as IACP has.”

Apparently, one of the biggest threats to law enforcement these days is Facebook and Twitter. A lot of Sheriffs are not too happy about it as they imagine their deputies twittering away their time. The Department of Homeland Secuity has plunged into social media by starting a blog and hooking up with Facebook and Twitter. Bersin launched into a rambling bit about how law enforcement is undergoing a labor transition. The new younger employees use Facebook and Twitter to communciate, he told the sheriffs many of whom are in their 50s and 60s.

“We can put our heads in the sand and say that’s not where the world is going but we would be out of step with where young people are in the world,” he told them. Obviously social media wouldn’t be used for sensitive law enforcement intelligence, Bersin said, but it could be used to “build communities of interest and undertsand what people are thinking.”

There was some grumbling and phone message checking among the sheriffs at Bersin’s comments. Clearly, they were not buying the social networking spiel. It looks like Bersin may not be Border Czar for much longer anyway. He is up for confirmation to be the new commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

After that Bersin took a couple of questions from the sheriffs then was out the door. Cher, I mean Bersin, had left the building.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.