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Commissioner Kerlikowske’s Remark at the University of South Florida

Release Date: 
February 19, 2016

Remarks as prepared for February 18, 2016

I am so delighted to be back in my home state of Florida – and especially my alma mater! I remember my years at USF-St. Petersburg with great fondness.

U.S. News & World Report ranks USF in the top 100 best public school in its Best Colleges listings – again. USF regularly finds itself in that prestigious list, and the university’s graduate level programs – including Criminology – continue to rank among the nation’s best in the U.S. News & World Report’s graduate school rankings. It’s clear that USF prepares its graduates for just about any career path.

I received a terrific education at USF – undergraduate and graduate – and it gave me a solid foundation for what has been, for me, a tremendously rewarding career. And I’ve devoted 44 years of my life to law enforcement, having come out of the Army to join the St. Petersburg Police force in 1972.

Today, however, I’d like to talk to you about CBP and how we might fit into your career path.

First, let me tell you a little about U.S. Customs and Border Protection. CBP was created in 2003 as part of the Department of Homeland Security to be a unified border agency – combining customs, immigration inspections, agriculture, border patrol, and air and marine operations. Our mission is really complex, because we have to balance border security with facilitating lawful travel and trade. CBP, in fact, is the nation’s largest law enforcement agency – and more than 40,000 of our 60,000 employees are sworn officers or agents.

So what does a typical day look like?  On a typical day, CBP: seizes more than 5 tons of narcotics; arrests 21 wanted criminals at ports of entry; intercepts 76 fraudulent documents; seizes $3.4 million in counterfeit products; flies more than 200 enforcement missions over the U.S.; and apprehends more than 1,300 inadmissible people at and between our ports of entry.

We have three operating components in CBP:

Border Patrol: our agents in green that protect in between our ports of entry along our northern and southern borders.  That’s 5,525 miles of border with Canada, and 1,989 miles with Mexico.

Field Operations: our officers in blue that protect at our 328 ports of entry – airports, land ports, and sea ports.  They process more than one million passengers and pedestrians each day.

Air and Marine: our agents in tan that patrol our seas and skies. Our maritime borders include 95,000 miles of shoreline.

CBP enforces nearly 500 laws for different 47 Federal agencies.

I want to take some time today to talk to you about our three operational components. 

Let’s first talk about the Border Patrol.  We have roughly 20,000 border patrol agents that use a myriad of tactics to secure our border. They patrol by foot, by vehicle, by horseback, by ATV’s… you name it.

One thing I’ll point out to keep in mind when we are talking about the southwest border, is if you have seen one part of the border – you have seen just one part of the border.  Securing the border is not a one size fits all approach. Operations have to be nimble to adjust appropriately to the terrain and the changing trends in people attempting to cross our borders.

Most people think of the fence when they hear southwest border.  I’m here to tell you that the fence is just one tool used to secure the border.  I’ll also point out to you that if you build a 24 foot tall fence, the smugglers will build a 26 foot ramp to go over it, or a tunnel to go under it.  The “fence” is more than just a steel fence.  It’s cameras, it’s integrated fixed towers, it’s ground sensors, it’s the use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems.

Behind all of the technology and tools, it’s our elite agents that get this job done.  These are highly skilled agents, and what they do is very dangerous. Within Border Patrol, we have two highly trained and skilled specialty teams – BORTAC and BORSTAR.  Our Border Patrol Tactical Unit recently made national news when our Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Chris Voss caught and ultimately killed the escaped New York inmate Richard Matt.

BORTAC is a low-profile, highly trained elite unit that take on various missions from serving high-risk arrest warrants to addressing high-risk barricaded hostage situations, high-risk interdictions and human tracking.

Border Patrol’s BORSTAR – Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue – is an elite unit of agents who provide specialized law enforcement and search and rescue response.  BORSTAR agents preform amazing rescue missions, and are responsible for saving so many lives.

The second of our three law enforcement components is our Air and Marine Operations.

Our Air Interdiction Agents and Marine Interdiction Agents are some of the most highly skilled pilots and speed boat operators you’ll ever see.  Their interdiction mission encompasses the interception, apprehension, and disruption of threats by land, sea, and air on our U.S. borders.  We have high-speed coastal interceptor vessels and tactical helicopters that interdict illicit smuggling attempts of drugs, weapons, and people trying to cross our borders illegally.

For example, in San Diego, our agents came across a lights-out panga-style vessel loaded with what appeared to be bales of narcotics.  Our crew activated their lights and siren, and shouted on their loudhailer to stop, but the suspects had no intention of stopping.  The suspects began erratic and evasive maneuvers, attempting to escape.  Once the pursuit was over, a search of the panga-boat led to the recovery of more than 70 bales of marijuana weighing over 2,400 lbs., a typical haul for the San Diego area.

Our Air and Marine Ops also have a heavy hand in investigations to defeat criminal networks.  For example, last year, we assigned a Marine Interdiction Agent to the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force to assist in an 11 month investigation and arrest of Arafat Nagi, a man suspected of terrorism living in New York.  Nagi was arrested and indicted on charges of attempting to provide material support to ISIS.

And our Air and Marine Operations perform a wide range of aviation and maritime ops for national missions, including disaster relief and National Special Security Events such as the Super Bowl.

Now shifting to our Field Operations.  Not only do our officers in blue have the responsibility to protect our homeland, but they are dually charged with facilitating lawful travel and trade.  We have direct responsibility for the U.S. economy.  Think about it – all of the fresh produce in grocery stores all around the U.S. that are not grown in America, CBP is responsible for first off, ensuring that it is safe, and secondly, ensuring a timely inspection through the port so it doesn’t spoil before it gets to the store. 

That’s a huge responsibility to make sure that goods for sale by large and small business owners alike – get them in time to keep their business afloat and profitable.

Dealing with trade – with exports and especially imports – is highly complicated and complex.

One thing to note on the enforcement side is counterfeit items and goods. When most of you hear counterfeit, you likely think counterfeit Louis Vuitton bags or NFL knock-off jerseys.  But what about counterfeit brakes and car parts and medical devices and items that severely impact our safety? 

At our ports of entry, CBP officers and agriculture specialists encountered some pretty amazing things, and have seen incredible lengths to which people will go to conceal contraband.

In Arizona, for example, we found nearly a ton of marijuana hidden under the floor of a tractor-trailer hauling squash. In Texas, officers inspected a commercial shipment of limes and found packages of marijuana totaling more than 2,500 pounds that were wrapped in paper featuring photographic images of limes – designed to blend in with the real limes!

We’ve intercepted cocaine wrapped in foil to look like chocolate, and we’ve found liquid methamphetamine in bottles of soft drinks. We’ve found narcotics hidden inside every car part you can think of – from tires to stereos to airbags and the seats themselves. In one suitcase, officers found hundreds of live snakes. We’ve recovered hundreds of pounds of pork from an SUV’s dashboard.

And it’s not just inbound smuggling that concerns us; we know that drug cartels send illicit currency – the proceeds of their criminal activities – back to their source countries. In one case, our officers worked with Puerto Rican authorities to intercept more than $2 million in cash hidden in the chassis of a vehicle that was being shipped by ferry to the Dominican Republic.

Over the past decade, CBP has developed a strong international presence, too. We recognized the need to push our “zone of security” outward, beyond our borders. By doing so, we are able to stop potentially dangerous people and goods before they even reach our shores.

For example, we now “preclear” travelers from 15 foreign locations in 6 countries, and we intend to enter negotiations to expand air preclearance to 10 more airports in 9 foreign countries. 

Think about this for a second.  Prior to 9-11, we screened passengers once they landed in the U.S.  And now, all passengers are screened multiple times before they even board the aircraft to come to the U.S., with multiple opportunities that if something is found or alerted, that because of our international presence, they will be denied boarding the plane for the U.S.

Think about all of the intel work that is needed for this and the work with our international counterparts.  We have an entire National Targeting Center dedicated to this effort – for both passenger and cargo. For contraband and counterfeit goods, we also work closely with foreign governments. 

Our Container Security Initiative personnel in Colombia, for example, helped screen four maritime containers destined to Germany and found nearly four tons of cocaine hidden in shipment of jars of pineapples. Through our Container Security Initiative, we have a presence at 60 ports in 35 countries, working with our foreign counterparts to disrupt narcotics smuggling operations and other criminal enterprises.

We do border security better than any other country in the world. 

And because of that, we are constantly asked for help.  Whether that is helping to set up border operations in Afghanistan, training K-9s for operations in Tanzania, assisting our foreign counterparts in how to best process passengers coming through their ports of entry, we have strong relationships with our counterparts all around the world.

Self-made billionaire Warren Buffett once said “You should look for three things in a person: intelligence, energy, and integrity. If they don’t have the third one, don’t even bother with the first two.”

For CBP, our core values: Integrity, Vigilance, and Service to Country.

When I became Commissioner of CBP nearly two years ago, in March 2014, I decided to make transparency and accountability the hallmarks of my tenure. After all, without transparency and accountability, it’s pretty hard to live up to the core value of integrity. But transparency is not about giving away information that puts your officers or department at risk. It is about being accessible and open to criticism and suggestions from the public, while continuously striving to improve our responses, our processes for dealing with issues, and improving the relationship with those we serve.

Sometimes, law enforcement agencies have to respond to difficult situations that grab the attention of the media and generate interest from all kinds of stakeholders. Transparency is critical in these situations. So, during the past two years, we’ve taken a number of important steps that are transforming our agency.

For example, we’ve implemented a unified, formal review process for investigating use of force incidents involving death or serious injury. We release information to the press and the public about our role in these incidents much more rapidly than we used to – within hours now, instead of days or weeks or months. Just two weeks ago, we had an incident near El Paso in which Border Patrol agents stopped a car-jacking. This was a very dangerous situation that required that split-second decision-making I just referred to. The suspect – allegedly had just shot and fatally wounded someone nearby in a robbery attempt – drew his weapon against our agents, who responded appropriately. In fact, the Border Patrol agents quickly began rendering first aid to the suspect until EMTs could respond. Although the suspect eventually died at the hospital, it’s important to note that our agents took heroic measures to try to save the man’s life.

Cameras are another use of technology that we deploy.  We are the first federal law enforcement agency to look at the feasibility of incorporating body-worn cameras into our various operational environments – air, land, and sea.

CBP agents and officers are also trained to expect the unexpected.

For example, in 2014 we saw a surge of 68,000 unaccompanied minors and families from Central America.  It’s important to note that this was not a border security issue, it was a border management issue.  These families and children were turning themselves in to Border Patrol Agents, and not attempting to flee. 

We quickly implemented a campaign called “Know the Facts” – a Spanish-language media blitz that place print, radio, and TV spots throughout Mexico as well as in Honduras, Ecuador, and Guatemala. The campaign emphasized the horrific dangers facing migrants who try to make the journey – and it also underscored the fact that there are no “permisos” for those who make it to the border.

Later that year, we implemented enhanced passenger screening procedures to address the concerns about the Ebola virus outbreak in Western Africa. And we are carefully monitoring the spread of the Zika virus.

So, our mission is truly complex and comprehensive.

Finally, a word about leadership. Because without good leadership, mission success is pretty elusive.

Leadership is hard work – and it takes courage.

I tell my senior managers that their greatest skill as leaders is giving employees the chance to demonstrate their own courage – letting them step into real situations – even uncomfortable ones – to develop ways of coping and facing challenges.  It’s also important to avoid confusing leadership with management. They are not the same.

CBP’s success depends on our ability to recruit, train, and retain exceptional people.  We are committed to getting the very best people for the job.

In closing, I’d make the observation that – as recent events have shown, from Paris to San Bernardino – our world can be a dangerous and complicated place. And the often blistering editorials and headlines about law enforcement can be discouraging. But that drumbeat of negativity cannot and will not drown out the dedication and commitment that our officers and agents display every day on the job – on our nation’s front line.

I am very proud of them.

So, I want to encourage each of you to think about how your talents, your skills, and your interests – and all the things you’re learning here at USF – might be applied to a career with CBP.

And I’ll also mention you don’t need a badge to make a difference. To support our 40,000 agents and officers, we have thousands of non-uniformed “mission support” employees for areas such as human resources, laboratory sciences, international relations, congressional liaisons, public affairs specialists, finance, IT – You name it!

Right now, until 2 p.m. today, CBP has recruiters over at the MSC Atrium who would be happy to talk to you.

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak to you here today. I look forward to taking your questions and hearing what’s on your mind.

Last modified: 
February 8, 2017