by Daniel González
The Arizona Republic
Dec. 29, 2011 11:23 PM

Since Alan Bersin took over as head of the federal agency in charge of border security two years ago, illegal immigration has fallen sharply in Arizona and along the rest of the Southwest border.

Some immigration experts say much of the credit goes to Bersin, who today is stepping down as commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a massive agency with 57,000 employees and an $11 billion budget.

As head of the agency, Bersin beefed up border security by adding manpower, aircraft surveillance, fencing and other barriers, and implementing a variety of programs aimed at deterring illegal immigrants and drug smugglers from entering the country.

As a result, Border Patrol apprehensions, a measure of illegal-immigration traffic, have fallen by 53 percent since 2008 and are now at one fifth of what they were at their peak in 2000, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

In Arizona, which for years has been the main transit point for illegal border crossings, Border Patrol apprehensions are at the lowest levels in 17 years, according to DHS.

"This has to be attributed to (Bersin)," said Demetrios G. Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., that studies immigration. "He has been the person who has been in charge. The same way we would blame Alan Bersin if we hadn't made enough progress, fair or unfair, we have to give credit to Alan Bersin for whatever gains we have made at the border."

Some border-security advocates, however, say illegal immigration fell because the jobs in the U.S. that draw illegal immigrants dried up in the bad economy.

"The effectiveness that we've had wasn't due to him," said George McCubbin, president of the National Border Patrol Council and a senior Border Patrol agent assigned to the Casa Grande station. "I think the economy has really probably been the Number 1 reason as to why the arrest numbers are down. I don't believe it was any strategy that was come up with under his time."

President Barack Obama directly appointed Bersin as commissioner of Customs and Border Protection in March 2010, after the Senate failed to act on Obama's nomination of Bersin and several other top federal officials, who also were given so-called recess appointments.

The agency is responsible for border security, protecting the nation from terrorist threats and expediting legal travel and trade through air, land and sea ports.

Bersin announced on Dec. 22 that he was stepping down as of today, the day before his recess appointment would have ended.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that Deputy Commissioner David Aguilar will serve as acting commissioner. Previously, Aguilar was head of the Border Patrol and was chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector.

In a written statement, Napolitano credited Bersin for taking "historic steps" to secure the nation's borders while facilitating legal travel and trade.

Sen. John McCain, who sits on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, gave Bersin kudos on his way out.

"As far as what I could tell, he did good work," McCain, R-Ariz., told The Arizona Republic on Thursday. "In the involvement that I had with him, I was impressed with his professionalism."

Under Bersin, Border Patrol apprehensions in the Tucson Sector, the nation's busiest, fell from 241,673 two years ago to 123,285 last year, according to Border Patrol statistics.

In the Yuma Sector, Border Patrol apprehensions fell from 6,951 two years ago to 5,833 last year. Apprehensions in the Yuma Sector are down 96 percent from a high of 138,438 in 2005.

Along the entire southern border, Border Patrol apprehensions fell from 540,865 two years ago to 327,577 last year.

During Bersin's tenure, 1,200 National Guard troops were deployed along the border, including roughly 560 in Arizona, to help spot illegal border crossers.

Beginning in January, the National Guard troops will be mostly removed and replaced with National Guard aircraft to help provide additional aerial surveillance and reconnaissance.

A total of nine Predator drones are now patrolling the southern border.

Under Bersin, the Border Patrol also expanded a program in the Tucson Sector that prosecutes illegal border crossers before sending them back to Mexico. He also expanded the use of a program that buses illegal immigrants captured in Arizona to other border states for removal; deporting them in other states, where it is more difficult to enter illegally and cuts down on the chances that they will try to cross again.

Rick Van Schoik, director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies, a think tank at Arizona State University, said Bersin will be difficult to replace.

Before being appointed as commissioner of CBP, Bersin served as Obama's border czar, focusing on illegal-immigration and drug-smuggling issues as well as developing relations with Mexico to combat drug cartels. He held a similar position in President Bill Clinton's administration.

"He brought a wealth of insight and expertise from his background and extraordinary intelligence," Van Schoik said.

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said that although Border Patrol apprehensions have dropped sharply in the Tucson Sector, they remain unacceptably high, especially in contrast with the Yuma Sector.

"It's sort of if a student was getting 20 percent on their tests and now they are getting 50 percent on their tests -- that is a 250 percent increase in their grades but they are still failing," Horne said.

Republic reporter Dan Nowicki contributed to this article.

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