Remarks by CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin, Sovereign Challenge, El Paso, Texas

This is a speech given by Commissioner Alan Bersin concerning border security and challenges at a recent meeting in El Paso, Texas.

I’m glad to be here with you to discuss the very timely issues of border security and enforcement.

Many of the threats we face are transnational and fluid, as demonstrated by the attempted Christmas Day and Times Square bombers and the recent discovery of bombs hidden within air cargo originating in Yemen. Each of these incidents involved the international movement of people or goods.

Closer to home, the continued violence within Mexico is not only a threat to Mexico and its citizens, it is a security concern for the United States. The border creates unique opportunities and risks in the effort to address and confront these and other threats.

The border demarcates critical legal and jurisdictional regimes—the most obvious of which is the jurisdictional line between countries. But the border is also a critical line where we have unique law enforcement, national security and defense, and intelligence authorities.

And, within the United States, we have multiple levels of government that may have some authority—federal, state, local, and tribal—in the border area, although management of the border itself is a federal responsibility.

Governments are bound by and must respect these jurisdictional and legal lines, but our adversaries are not—and do not.

For us, this puts a premium on effective collaboration and partnership between governments and their agencies responsible for border management and public security.

I’d like to outline CBP’s approach to border management—building a 21st Century Border by securing the flows of goods and people between both countries—and then talk with you about how we are working with some of our partners on border security issues.

Building a 21st Century Border

Our approach to managing the border has to reflect the challenges—and opportunities—we face. Creating a 21st Century Border—one that allows us to protect our citizens, encourage and grow trade opportunities, and embodies our tradition of an open, welcoming society—is one of my highest priorities.

These notions are the foundation of our efforts on the border and are perhaps most evident in our engagement with our neighbors: Mexico and Canada. This sentiment is echoed in the statement from Presidents Obama and Calderon this past May. The Presidents provided us with a set of principles to guide our approach, and I would like to highlight some of them:

We must develop the border and manage it in a holistic fashion—in ways that facilitate the secure, efficient, and rapid flows of goods and people and reduce the costs of doing business between our two countries.
We need to collaboratively administer and manage the border, including for example through system planning, operational coordination, and technical and regulatory cooperation.
We share responsibility for defeating and dismantling the illicit criminal networks that traffic drugs into the United States, and illegal weapons and illicit revenues into Mexico.
Law enforcement coordination is essential to preventing crime and to disrupting and dismantling transnational criminal organizations.
This view of border management and security takes us far beyond the traditional approach which has been to “hold the line”—just countries operating generally on their own.

Although policing the jurisdictional line will remain a key element of any border management approach, our strategy must be more holistic – particularly if we are to reach our objectives of a safe and secure border that facilitates lawful trade and travel.

But perhaps more importantly, this statement underscores the tenet that border management is a shared responsibility.

On the security side, what does this holistic approach look like? The framework I offer to you is “corridor security.”

Illicit goods and people generally travel to the United States in distinct corridors—geographic routes that begin abroad, cross the border, and enter into the interior United States. In the case of the drug trade and Mexico, there is a reverse flow of illicit proceeds and firearms from the interior United States, across the border, and into Mexico. Securing the corridors means attacking the whole of the criminal continuum—at its source points, in the transit zones, at the border, and in the interior and distribution areas—in a systematic and coordinated fashion, as opposed to compartmentalizing the corridor and pursuing individual enforcement efforts in vacuum.

This type of approach puts a premium on unity of effort among the different departments and agencies, indeed countries, that are involved. The complement to this in the facilitation area is an approach based on securing the flows of goods and people through the legitimate ports of entry.

By segmenting traffic based on prior screening and targeted assessments of risk, we are able to focus our resources on the people and things we know the least about. This both maximizes the effectiveness of our inspections and allows us to expedite legitimate travel and commerce by rapidly clearing trade and traffic that poses a smaller threat.


We are pioneering this corridor security approach in the Arizona-Sonora, Mexico corridor through the Operation Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats or ACTT.

Initiated in September 2009, ACTT is a multi-agency operation that brings together over 50 federal, tribal, state, and local law enforcement and public safety organizations. It employs a collaborative enforcement approach against criminal organizations, capitalizing on the capabilities and resources of our strategic partners.

CBP is linking its border enforcement authorities with the interior enforcement authorities of our federal investigative partners and state and local law enforcement. Each agency is operating within its specific set of authorities but by linking our efforts we can more effectively attack the criminal organizations and achieve better law enforcement outcomes.

ACTT has a “unified command” that brings together local law enforcement leadership—for example, the Border Patrol Sector Chief, the ICE and DEA SACs, and the CBP Field Operations Director.

This is a collaborative approach—each agency remains in charge of its own resources, and no agency is ordering another around. The unified command works together to identify threats and to determine how they can collaboratively attack those threats.

This model may look different from the military unified commands you may have experience with, and it probably is. Although law enforcement can take lessons learned and best practices from the military, law enforcement is different and has to tailor its own solutions and models.

As part of the ACTT, we’re partnering more closely with Mexico than we ever have before to secure our shared border, including establishing joint patrols with SSP, the Mexican federal police.

If you had told me in 1994, when I was President Clinton’s border representative, that the US Border Patrol would be planning joint patrols with SSP, I would have had trouble believing you. It is hard to overstate what an important step forward this is towards true co-responsibility for border security.

Working with Mexico

As I already mentioned, a key development in our relationship has been accepting the concept of shared responsibility for transnational problems.

Nowhere is this more evident than in our relationship with Mexico.

Of course, a core focus and concern right now is the unprecedented violence in parts of Mexico, especially along the border with the United States.

For its part, Mexico’s Calderon Administration has taken a courageous and historic stand against the criminal groups there. They have had notable successes in taking down the leaders of drug traffickers organizations and their key lieutenants.

Mexico is purging its border management agencies of corrupt employees, vetting new officials, and establishing a more robust law enforcement presence along the border. They are remodeling their judicial sector and working to make local communities more secure and resilient.

The United States is also working jointly with Mexico more closely than ever before:

We’re coordinating inspections and law enforcement efforts, coordinating and capacity building, and providing assistance to Mexico.

We are improving our information sharing regimes, including sharing information about potentially dangerous individuals and cargo traveling into Mexico by land, air, and sea.

Through the Merida Initiative, which was launched in 2007, the United States has been able to partner with Mexico on important capacity issues, such as training for Mexican law enforcement and the provision of critical, advanced equipment.

And of course, we are doing what we can do on our side of the border to mitigate the crime and violence of the cartels by attacking the criminal operations in the interior of the United States which have links to the cartels.

For example, CBP is engaging in southbound operations to help stem the flow of illicit proceeds and firearms into Mexico. Our investigative agencies are targeting the cartels presence in the United States.

The United States and Mexico are accepting shared responsibility for the border. We have, functionally, a bi-national partnership to attack the cartels in Mexico, at the border, and in the United States—and we are doing this in a way that respects each country’s sovereignty and in a way that adheres to the jurisdictional and legal limits on our enforcement agencies.

Most importantly, however, we are doing this while still facilitating people and cargo across the busiest border in the world. This is 21st Century border management.

Border Intelligence Fusion Section at EPIC

The volumes of legitimate travel and trade are enormous, and at ports of entry, criminal elements and threats can hide or be masked within the lawful flows. Our borders are also expansive—the Southwest border is about 2,000 miles long; the Northern border is close to 4,000 miles; and we have 95,000 miles of maritime border.

Our enforcement resources, however, are limited. We need to be able to smartly and efficiently deploy those resources to meet the threat. Intelligence and information are critical to our ability to do that.

We started an important effort this last summer to enhance and improve the information sharing effort among our border enforcement agencies by creating a new fusion section at the El Paso Intelligence Center.

The new section will focus on all threats and hazards, and will be responsible for “pulling” in and analyzing data from border enforcement agencies and “pushing” out leads and actionable real-time intelligence on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week basis. The section will consolidate, analyze, and disseminate information from within DHS, DOJ, EPIC, the Intelligence Community, and other partners.

We also have been examining how to leverage services the Department of Defense could provide through U.S. Northern Command and Joint Task Force North. Its focus will be on the interdiction and investigation of unlawful cross-border activities, particularly illegal entries, alien smuggling, weapons smuggling, narcotics smuggling, and cash smuggling.

As I mentioned before, the border is a place where different legal regimes come together, and this applies to information and intelligence sharing, especially as it relates to the U.S. intelligence community. The new section at EPIC will help us to systematically bridge the divides that exist, and in a way that respects legal and policy restrictions.

It is part of the new way of doing business at the border—agencies collaborating and integrating, as allowable, to increase and improve our ability to meet border threats.


Of course, border management does not occur exclusively on the Southwest border. Effectively managing our border with Canada is critical to national and economic security, and the expansion of North American economic competitiveness.

The U.S./Canada border is often referred to as the longest undefended border between two nations in the world. Since 9/11, however, we’ve learned that although it remains undefended in terms of our militaries, we cannot ignore it in terms of security.

Our shared border with Canada is three times longer than the Mexican Border and includes thousands of miles of widely-used rivers and lakes, but the levels of illicit activity have remained relatively low. So we’ve adopted tailored border management strategies to fit the environment.

Given the vastness of the environment, the varied and challenging terrain, and the limited resources available, in order to effectively manage the Northern border we must multiply our efforts through technology and through close partnerships with Canadian, state, local, and tribal law enforcement.


Some of the technological solutions we are implementing include methods to expand our awareness of the environment and ability to respond to incidents, such as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs).

We’ve deployed two UASs to Grand Forks, North Dakota to provide enhanced monitoring capability of the border and detect illicit activity.

We have also added infrared and seismic sensors and video surveillance, including Mobile and Remote Video Surveillance Systems.

In addition to enhancing security, we have also expanded the use of technology to help expedite the secure flow of legitimate people and goods, including deploying non-intrusive inspection equipment, radio frequency identification document scanners, and other systems to our northern border ports of entry.

These dramatically help segment the volumes of traffic entering the United States from Canada every day, enabling our officers to expedite legitimate traffic and spend limited time and resources on the higher risk and unknown goods and people.


Despite the tremendous strides we have made through the deployment of unique tailored technologies, we must also rely on our state, local, Tribal, and Canadian partners in the border environment.

The integrated nature of our two countries’ populations results in shared threats and risks, and requires shared responsibilities.

We coordinate with our partners through the state and local fusion centers to share information and intelligence and we work with our counterparts in the Canada Border Services Agency at the ports to develop collaborative procedures to expedite legitimate trade.

CBP also works closely with our Canadian partners through our Integrated Border Enforcement Teams—or IBETs. We have 24 IBETs in both countries, continuously working to improve intelligence and information exchange and coordinated cross-border enforcement efforts.

These types of integrated bi-national approaches to border management are essential to our comprehensive strategy.

One example of these critical partnerships is the Ship Rider agreement with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. This agreement allows U.S. and Canadian law enforcement officers to be co-located on each other’s vessels in the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence Seaway system, and our shared Pacific and Atlantic coasts.


I mention the coastlines specifically, because unfortunately they are all-too-often overlooked when discussing border security. We must understand that no border security strategy is complete unless it addresses our coastal borders, as well as the rivers, lakes and waterways we share with Canada and Mexico.

This critical maritime border environment remains among the least monitored and requires particular coordination with our state, local, and international partners.

The Air and Marine Operations Center (AMOC) provides an excellent example of the type of coordinated multi-agency approach we need to expand in the littoral environment. AMOC consolidates information and technology from throughout the U.S. government, as well as international partners, to form a unified picture and develop a coordinated operational response to incidents.

But, this picture can only become more robust—and therefore more helpful to those who use it—by including a greater number of partners. We must continually seek to expand our engagement and cooperation with those who seek to enhance the safety and security of North America and the expeditious flow of legitimate trade to and from it.


Today’s interconnected global economy has brought our countries unprecedented prosperity, but the rapid worldwide movement of people, goods, and ideas also means that threats are no longer confined by international boundaries.

International cooperation is the key to protecting our countries, our citizens, and our economies. To successfully thwart attacks, such as the Christmas Day attempt, Times Square and the cargo planes, we must push our borders out. The borders of our countries should not—must not—be the first line of defense, but the last. It will not be easy to make our new vision for the border a reality. There are no quick fixes.

Every strategy we’ve put in place since 9/11 has been built on partnership, and we must continue to work together with international partners to share information and best practices, like you’ve done here at this Sovereign Challenge Conference.

During these few days together, I hope you’ve shared ideas that you can take back to your countries—and apply to your own unique border situations. We all face enormous challenges with global terrorism and criminal enterprises, but I’m confident that by working together, we will prevail.

I look forward to working with all of you to secure the flows of people and goods across our borders—and to bring security and prosperity to our nations.

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