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December 14, 2017
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Customs officials discuss progress on trade enforcement, security, and facilitation in Boston

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ACS "shut-off," staffing shortages, cooperation with Mexico, and North American version of the Single Window are among many topics under discussion.

A public meeting in Boston last week of the Commercial Customs Operations Advisory Committee (COAC), which advises U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on commercial operations, was awash in the technical minutiae of customs compliance. Subcommittees reported their detailed recommendations in such areas as intellectual property rights, customs bonds, export manifest testing, and data sharing among government agencies, to name but a few. One broader theme that emerged was the need to expand the benefits of process modernization beyond U.S. borders and to bring best practices from abroad to the U.S.

Toward that end, a COAC working group established late last year is developing recommendations for implementing a North American Single Window encompassing the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The U.S. Single Window, part of the International Trade Data System (ITDS) and CBP's new Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) information system, is a portal that allows international traders to file information about shipments once and electronically share data with all relevant U.S. government agencies. Mexico already has such a system for imports, and Canada's version, like that of the U.S., is being rolled out in phases. A North American Single Window would provide import and export information to customs and other federal agencies in all three countries, with a stated goal of aligning and streamlining regulatory requirements, data sets, and processing without compromising enforcement and risk assessment.

During the program, CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske and other CBP officials held a separate press conference that provided updates on a wide range of topics. Among the highlights:

  • The "historic" July 23 switchover from CBP's legacy Automated Commercial System (ACS) to ACE was successful, with only minor "IT-type problems," said Cynthia Whittenburg, deputy executive assistant commissioner, Office of Trade. On that day it became mandatory for all electronic cargo entries and corresponding entry summaries to be filed in ACE, and CBP essentially shut off ACS. Technical teams are monitoring the new system around the clock to address any problems that arise.
  • CBP's staffing shortage has been reduced, but gaps remain. A systemwide review of staffing requirements in 2014 showed a shortage of more than 4,600, and Congress approved funding to hire an additional 2,000 officers that year, said Todd Owen, executive assistant commissioner, Office of Field Operations. Not all of those positions have been filled; staffing at air- and seaports is "very healthy," but it has been difficult to recruit qualified agents at the Southwest land border, he said. However, a 2016 review of staffing requirements shows that staffing needs for 2017 have been reduced by approximately 500, largely due to process improvements and technology upgrades, Owen said. For example, a software "refresh" for radiation portal monitors two years ago reduced the incidence of false alarms by 85 percent, significantly cutting down on the number of officers required to monitor the machines and respond to alarms.
  • Kerlikowske said that "unbelievable progress" and efficiency improvements have been made on the U.S.-Mexico border, thanks to cooperation between the two governments. Among those he cited are recent changes in Mexico's laws to allow armed CBP officers to work alongside Mexican customs officers in that country; as a result, the agencies may now conduct joint inspections of Mexican produce before it enters the U.S. rather than separate inspections in each country. Mexico's customs authority is also sharing security images of railcars crossing into Brownsville, Texas, rather than both sides stopping the cars for screening.
  • As part of the Secure Freight Initiative, 100 percent of U.S.-bound containers at the ports of Qasim in Pakistan and Aqaba in Jordan are now being screened for weapons and contraband. The images are transmitted in real time to CBP analysts in the U.S., who review and approve or order an inspection, said Owen. Five years into the program, CBP wants to reassess the technology it has been using to screen containers overseas and has put out a request for information from technology vendors, he said.

During the event's opening remarks and the press conference, several speakers noted that Congress is increasingly interested in and supportive of trade enforcement, and that trade's unexpected prominence in the presidential campaign could be beneficial in keeping the trade community's needs and priorities in front of policymakers. When asked to what degree a change in administration affects customs policies and priorities, Kerlikowske, who plans to step down when a new president takes office, said that he couldn't comment, as he had not experienced such a change. However, he did have a recommendation for the new administration, regardless of party: that a new commissioner be appointed and confirmed as quickly as possible, and the position not allowed to remain unfilled for several years, as was the case prior to his confirmation. CBP, he said, is a "sophisticated, complex agency" that has a major impact on national security and the economy and needs leadership.

Toby Gooley is Editor of CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly.

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