Make us your home page
Instagram

Head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection — a former St. Pete cop — discusses immigration

When he was a police officer in St. Petersburg, R. Gil Kerlikowske dreamed of becoming a police chief.

Now, the University of South Florida graduate is running one of the nation's largest law enforcement agencies as commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Kerlikowske spent much of his career in St. Petersburg, serving as commander of detectives, before going on to work as police chief in Buffalo, N.Y., and Seattle and as director of the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy. He took the helm of Customs and Border Protection in March 2014.

Kerlikowske, 66, returned to the Tampa Bay area this week to address criminology students at USF as the agency works to recruit new officers. He sat down with the Tampa Bay Times to discuss the challenges facing his agency.

You've worked all over the country — East Coast, West Coast, Florida. I wonder what makes Tampa Bay unique, especially in your position now. What challenges are there here on the local and federal levels?

For us in Customs and Border Protection, we have a fairly large footprint in this area because we have the Port of Tampa, so we've had cargo and freight. Our job is not just border security, but to facilitate lawful trade and lawful travel. So you think about the changes in the market on the global supply chain. People want just-in-time supplies; they don't want things stacked up in warehouses. That means that we have to have a process in place that when those freighters are unloaded, things are inspected and they move along expeditiously but safely. Then you look at the airport and the growth of international travel — and international travel is growing pretty rapidly at the Tampa airport. We have to do all of the work to inspect and authorize and admit people into the country, and they don't want to get off a long flight and then spend three hours standing in line. So you need to balance the security with the technology and the work.

It seems like that confluence of the increase in international travel and the rise of just-in-time delivery, along with the added emphasis on security, would be difficult to balance.

I think part of the balance also is that we process a million people a day, 70,000 containers — that's a lot. You're not going to be able to spend any significant amount of time at either of those functions without a lot of technology and without a lot of information sharing, whether it's detection of radiation, but also risk-based analysis. We have a national targeting center in Washington for cargo, so we look at every manifest of cargo coming in — what was the country of origin, where did it pass through on its way to the United States, what does its manifest declare that it is? And we can use a lot of science behind targeting because you're not going to take 70,000 containers and search them.

There has been a lot of investment in the last 10 to 15 years. Is the level of resources adequate?

… The good thing about Customs and Border Protection is it's very nonpartisan. No one supports having less reviews of cargo or people coming in.

The missions of the agencies have bipartisan support, but certainly the details have become hot political issues, immigration in particular. And in the last few years, the number of immigrants coming from Mexico has dropped. I wonder where you see that disconnect between it being a hot political issue and it not being at the peak it was a few years ago.

I think that one, we all have pretty short-term memories. It wasn't that many years ago that we apprehended 1.6 million people. Our apprehensions are significantly below that, last year below 400,000. But people tend to forget the 1.6 million. … I think that it's interesting, too, because as a police chief I was never held accountable for a crime-free city. When I was the commander of detectives, it wasn't: Well, you have to make sure there's no crime, and if any crime occurs, you've failed. There's a view on the borders and on certain things that no one can get through. I mean, we talk about the porous border, but we've never had more resources, particularly on the southwest border, than we have today. Unmanned aircraft, ground sensors, infrared, tethered aerostats, 18,000 border patrol agents, on and on and on. It's just a huge increase at every level. And so the border, frankly, is far more secure.

A lot of the rhetoric the last several months has been about trying to shut off the border entirely, building a wall. I wonder if you see that as a possibility.

… Anyone who's visited the border or looked at a place like Arizona with the desert and mountains, or the Rio Grande River or the urban area of San Diego-Tijuana realizes that there's no simple solution, fencing, wall, etc., that is going to suddenly secure that. I mean, we make a pretty good number of apprehensions of people coming out of Mexico on the Pacific in (small boats), on Jet Skis, etc.

At least in my opinion, one of our better goals would be to make — because most people are coming from three Central American countries — would be to make those three Central American countries more stable, more safe, more secure, with a better economy. … They don't really have the desire to pick up and leave the country they were born in, with their small child, and come here if in fact they had a better quality of life where they were.

Contact Thad Moore at [email protected] or (813) 226-3434. Follow @thadmoore.

Head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection — a former St. Pete cop — discusses immigration 02/19/16 [Last modified: Friday, February 19, 2016 8:30pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Carrollwood fitness center employs scientific protocol to help clients

    Business

    In 2005, Al Roach and Virginia Phillips, husband and wife, opened 20 Minutes to Fitness in Lakewood Ranch, and last month they opened the doors to their new location in Carrollwood.

    Preston Fisher, a personal fitness coach at 20 Minutes To Fitness, stands with an iPad while general manager/owner Angela Begin conducts an equipment demonstration. The iPad is used to track each client's information and progress. I also included one shot of just the equipment. The center recently opened in Carrollwood. Photo by Danielle Hauser.
  2. Olive Tree branches out to Wesley Chapel

    Business

    WESLEY CHAPEL — When it came time to open a second location of The Olive Tree, owners John and Donna Woelfel, decided that Wesley Chapel was the perfect place.

    The Olive Tree expands its offerings of "ultra premium?€ extra virgin olive oils (EVOO) to a second location in Wesley Chapel. Photo by Danielle Hauser.
  3. Massachusetts firm buys Tampa's Element apartment tower

    Real Estate

    TAMPA — Downtown Tampa's Element apartment tower sold this week to a Massachusetts-based real estate investment company that plans to upgrade the skyscraper's amenities and operate it long-term as a rental community.

    The Element apartment high-rise at 808 N Franklin St. in downtown Tampa has been sold to a Northland Investment Corp., a Massachusetts-based real estate investment company. JIM DAMASKE  |  Times
  4. New York town approves Legoland proposal

    News

    GOSHEN, N.Y. — New York is one step closer to a Lego dreamland. Goshen, a small town about fifty miles northwest of the Big Apple, has approved the site plan for a $500 million Legoland amusement park.

    A small New York town, Goshen approved the site plan for a $500 million Legoland amusement park. Legoland Florida is in Winter Haven. [Times file  photo]
  5. Jordan Park to get $20 million makeover and new senior housing

    Real Estate

    By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

    Times Staff Writer

    ST. PETERSBURG —The St. Petersburg Housing Authority, which bought back the troubled Jordan Park public housing complex this year, plans to spend about $20 million to improve the 237-unit property and construct a new three-story building for …

    Jordan Park, the historic public housing complex, is back in the hands of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority. The agency is working to improve the 237-unit complex. But the latest plan to build a new three-story building for seniors will mean 31 families have to find new homes. [LARA CERRI   |   Tampa Bay Times]