On October 6, Alan Bersin, Commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Department of Homeland Security, gave the Ira M. Belfer Lecture at Brooklyn Law School, addressing the challenges his department faces in a post-9/11 world.
Commissioner Bersin set the framework for his talk by discussing how 9/11 changed the way borders were perceived. He said, “Previously, they were a jurisdictional concept, demarcated with physical barriers, such as walls or fortifications. Today, borders are in reality the flow of goods and people. This has created a reversal of how we deal with borders.”
He explained that attacks on the United States soil caused policy makers to rethink “What is a nation?” and “What are its borders?” As a result, authorities had to consider that, for practical purposes, a border was a person boarding a plane or dangerous objects being shipped overseas. This resulted in addressing risk through specific intelligence information, identifying high-risk people, and working across agency lines to share information. “Risk assessment emerges as the keystone of border management,” he said.
Bersin noted that, “data and information sharing between them, while not perfect, has increased exponentially during the past decade. This shared counter-terrorism intelligence and information, together with foreign travel-related data supplied by CBP, has proven its worth to homeland security time and time again.”
Bersin also talked about the reorganization of U.S. agencies to deal with security threats and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. The concept of a homeland was new, he remarked, a term often used by European countries, but not historically part of the American psyche. He explained that Customs and Border Protection was formed through the merger of four separate organizations from three separate cabinet departments into one new agency. “A unified border management was created for the first time in American history,” he said, and, “for the first time across the globe in the world’s history. Immigration, customs, and agricultural inspection authorities exercised by the same officer working for a single agency defined by an overarching security mission, invented the institution of joint border management and the science and art of modern border protection.”
Bersin also spoke of the need for a new border paradigm among the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, stating that the 7300 miles shared, creates a unique opportunity to manage the flow of people and cargo. With respect to security, he said, “the focus must shift from an exclusive one on land border lines, north and south, to take into account the necessity for continental perimeter security. This approach would have Canada, the U.S., and Mexico jointly identifying and intercepting dangerous people and things as they move in global flows toward the North American continent.” He pointed to two agreements between the U.S. and Mexico and the U.S. and Canada that would define strategic relationships about legal and illegal flows across the border. “The stage has been set for an increasingly trilateral discussion over the next generation that holds out enormous promise for the three countries and the North America they share,” he said.
In closing, Bersin quoted the French poet Paul Valery who said, “The [challenge of] our times is that the future is not what it used to be.”
The Ira M. Belfer Lecture honors the 1933 Law School graduate, who was a leading practitioner of corporate, real estate, and trust and estates law for over half a century, a member of the Board of Trustees, and a generous benefactor to the Law School.