Alan Bersin: Obama's 'Border Czar'

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Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Alan Bersin, left, gestures during a meeting of the Board of Education in Sacramento, California. He was announced April 15 as the new "border czar"

He's been here before. Alan Bersin, President Obama's pick for "border czar" essentially had the same job under President Clinton. This time, however, instead of serving under Attorney General Janet Reno, Bersin's boss will be Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who will expect him to handle illegal immigration and drug violence issues along the Mexican-American border. A man who is used to jumping into jobs with almost no experience, Bersin at least has a leg up on this one.

Fast Facts:

• Born in October, 1946 in Brooklyn, NY to a strict Jewish family. He is twice married and has three children.

• During his impressive educational career, became friends with Al Gore (while at Harvard), Bill Clinton (while a Rhodes Scholar) and Hillary Clinton (during his years at Yale Law School).

• A star linebacker at Harvard, Bersin took up horseback riding and scuba diving in his later years due to injured knees from football.

• Has been known to take jobs for which he has little experience. Served as U.S. Attorney in San Diego despite not being a criminal lawyer. Became San Diego School Superintendent despite not having sent any of his children to public institutions.

• As border czar under Janet Reno in the mid-1990s, implemented "Operated Gatekeeper," which fortified the border closest to San Diego, but effectively only shifted illegal immigrant crossings east. Immigrant advocacy groups blamed his policies for increased border-crossing deaths. (See pictures of Mexico's drug industry)

• Speaks Spanish fluently.

• Bersin's seven-year term as San Diego education superintendent — at the time one of the longest in the nation — was notable for the vehement opposition it drew from teacher unions and school board members. Both groups decried Bersin's "Blueprint for Student Success" plan — which placed an emphasis on basic math and reading programs and a single curriculum — as limiting (and even, said some extreme critics, "fascistic"). By the time he left, a huge rift had opened between teachers and San Diego principals, over 80% of which he hired during his term.

• Before being picked to take over as California Education Secretary, Bersin was seriously considered to take over the Motion Picture Association of America.

Quotes By:

• "What's going on in Mexico, across the border, in Juarez, requires that we support the government of Mexico in its very valiant, courageous effort to both stem violence and also deal with the drug trafficking organizations."
— on working with Mexican officials (CNN April 15, 2009)

• "The tragedy of migrants ... dying is a horrible regret of any action which has that outcome."
— on the criticism that Operation Gatekeeper pushed migrants deeper into the desert, where they were more easily susceptible to dehydration and death, (San Diego Union-Tribune, June 13, 1998)

• "There were mistakes made. There were dozens and even hundreds of mistakes made, but never for the wrong reasons, because the focus needed to be shifted. It needed to be taken away from what adults wanted for their employment to what children needed for their education. That's going to lead to lots of tensions and conflicts."
— on the controversy that accompanied his tenure as San Diego school superintendent (San Diego Union-Tribune, Jan. 29, 2005)

• "I am now so used to being vilified and having our initiatives mischaracterized or maligned that I have recently found myself failing to listen seriously to my opponents ... That has never happened before to me, and I find it unacceptable in myself."
— during a first-ever "state of the district" address delivered while superintendent. Near the end of his tenure, Bersin's opponents in the teachers union and school board were attacking him as often as possible. (San Diego Union-Tribune, April 5, 2002)

Quotes About:

• "In certain circles in the city, Bersin is a verb. Bersin is a punch line. Bersin is the boogeyman. Yet outside San Diego, Bersin and his education work are the subject of academic research and think tanks." (San Diego Union-Tribune, May 1, 2005)

• "Alan is a reformer and that is what I love about him. As superintendent, he launched a major administrative reorganization and an academic reform plan aimed at improving student achievement. And the plan is working."
— Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California, upon announcing Bersin as state education secretary, (San Diego Union-Tribune, April 20, 2005)

• "I'd rather have someone who knows the issues than someone who spends two or three years learning them."
— Enrique Morones, San Diego pro-immigration activist, on Bersin's previous experience working on the border, (San Diego Union-Tribune, April 15, 2009)

• "Teachers can't believe it. We Are worried about the future. Alan Bersin is a dictator who never took the opinion of the classroom teacher."
— Barbara Scott, elementary school teacher, upon the announcement that Bersin would be state education secretary, (San Diego Union-Tribune, April 30, 2005)

• "You represent death to us."
— Christian Ramirez, Raza Rights Coalition protester, during a San Diego town hall meeting. Latino activists have been vocal opponents of Bersin over the years due to their perception that Operation Gatekeeper resulted in the death of many border crossers, (San Diego Union-Tribune, June 5, 1998)

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