"Alan brings years of vital experience with local, state and international partners to help us meet the challenges we face at our borders," Napolitano said in a statement, according to the Washington Post. "He will lead the effort to make our borders safe while working to promote commerce and trade."
Bersin, 62, will take over the largest agency under the Department of Homeland Security. U.S. Customs and Border Protection oversees more than 7,500 miles of U.S. border with Mexico and Canada, with a $9 billion budget and 38,000 customs agents and border patrol guards. In his new position, Bersin will be responsible for overseeing the interception of drugs and illegal immigrants at airports, seaports, and border crossings, while keeping the flow of legal traffic and goods unhindered.
His nomination comes at a time when renewed drug cartel violence along the U.S.-Mexico border has emerged as a critical security challenge. Bersin will oversee efforts to reduce that violence and stem the influence of cartels along the border.
Bersin formerly served as Southwest border representative for the U.S. border with Mexico between 1995 and 1998 under President Bill Clinton. He was known to be effective at cracking down on border crime and lowering illegal crossings, particularly around the San Diego-Tijuana junction.
"He was known in that role as a pragmatist, which seems to fit the Obama administration profile," Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California San Diego, told the San Diego Union-Tribune.
Bersin also drew praise with improving relations with his law enforcement counterparts in Mexico. In his new post, Bersin is expected to work with international officials, along with law enforcement in the U.S. and border states.
"I think the message is that they are serious about trying to work with Mexico to address these bi-national problems," David A. Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego, told the Los Angeles Times. "They want to have a go-to person that can coordinate on a broad range of complex issues."
Bersin has also served as secretary of education for California, superintendent of San Diego schools and U.S. attorney in San Diego.
Media reports categorize his time as San Diego schools chief as stormy, as he regularly faced off with teachers and school board members. Still, his performance earned him the nod from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to serve as the state's secretary of education in 2005.
"Alan is a reformer and that is what I love about him," Schwarzenegger said in announcing the appointment. "As superintendent, he launched a major administrative reorganization and an academic reform plan aimed at improving student achievement. And the plan is working."
Born in Brooklyn, Bersin attended Harvard University and later Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, where he befriended Bill Clinton. He also holds a law degree from Yale. He is the U.S. chair of a new task force on the U.S.-Mexico border region, organized by the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations and the Pacific Council on International Policy.
Bersin also serves as the chair of the executive committee of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority.
The border chief announcement comes as President Barack Obama prepares to travel to Mexico Thursday to meet with Mexican President Felipe Calderon. The U.S. government announced plans last month to help Mexican authorities combat violent drug gangs south of the border and renew a focus on curbing the southbound flow of U.S. guns and smuggling profits to the cartels.