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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 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]
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