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Developing a System for Administering Customs

Newport Account of Discounts

In July 1789, the U.S. Congress passed a series of acts that established the legal structure for assessing and collecting customs duties. While two of the acts established what was subject to duties and the structure of the duties, the act of July 31, 1789, created the staff positions to collect duties and administer customs. It also enabled President George Washington to nominate people to these jobs. The importance of this legislation to the new nation may be seen in the timing of their passage. These laws were enacted before all 13 states had ratified the U.S. Constitution.

The structure for regulating customs would constantly change, and those administering customs would find their duties changing as the government took on more responsibilities or reacted to the issues of the day. The first major shift was in 1818 with the establishment of appraisers. When Congress created the structure and outlined staffing in 1789, it failed to create a federal position who would determine the value of imports for imposing duties. Instead, it allowed collectors at individual ports to appoint a “reputable merchant” to appraise value and determine duties on imports. Concerned about under valuation, Congress specified the appointment of “well-qualified” appraisers at six major ports in 1818. These appointees could also be called into service in districts where there was no resident appraiser. For this service, the appointee would receive a per diem of five dollars with an additional five dollars “for every twenty-five miles in going to or returning from” the district. Congress also set their salaries at $1,500 per year, except for the New York City appraisers who received $2,000.

Throughout the 19th Century, Customs positions were highly sought after. Reflecting the practices of the times, these positions were frequently considered patronage positions. Some of the pioneers of American letters served as Customs officials. Thomas Melvill [sic], Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne held positions during the period from 1789 to 1885.

Appointments were also sometimes used to address societal wrongs on an individual basis. During the Reconstruction Period, the Civil War hero and former slave Robert Smalls was appointed a collector customs in South Carolina. And when the arctic explorer Matthew Henson had difficulty finding a suitable position because he was African-American, President William Howard Taft appointed him to a position in the New York customhouse. 

The people who filled customs positions also expanded their roles as new issues affected the welfare and security of the nation. When impure drugs were identified as a major cause of casualties in the Mexican-American War, it became a responsibility of customs inspectors to prevent their importation. This new role led to the creation of special examiners who checked the “quality, purity, and fitness for medical purposes” of imported drugs using the major pharmacopoeias (publications describing drugs) and dispensatories for standards.

By 1890, special examiners of drugs were being phased out in favor of appointees chosen for their breadth of knowledge in pharmacology, botany and pharmaceutical chemistry.  In the early 20th Century, some of these positions were filled by women like Eva Dresser who was appointed as a chemist on June 18, 1918.

In 1935, the position of Consulting Chemist to the Secretary of the Treasury was created. This was followed by the establishment of a Division of Laboratories in 1936. This reorganization removed the laboratories from the jurisdiction of the appraisers and collectors and ushered in an era of employing modern and standardized practices.

During the early days of radio, customs officials worked in partnership with the Bureau of Navigation to regulate the use of the airwaves. From the establishment of protocols for ship-to-shore communications to assigning call letters to stations to licensing radio operators and ensuring neutrality of the airwaves during the advent of World War I, these officials were the frontline of implementing procedures that enabled clear communications via radio. When radio expanded from a means of communication into a public broadcast medium, customs official relinquished their responsibilities.

Working in tandem with other agencies expanded in the 20th century and was a hallmark of the Customs Bureau’s role in the prohibition against alcohol. On April 1, 1925, Lincoln C. Andrews was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Treasury with supervision over Customs, Coast Guard and Prohibition. These organizations not only collaborated, but also worked with the Border Patrol within the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The Customs Bureau’s role in law enforcement expanded throughout the 1970s. When terrorists hijacked planes in 1970, the Treasury Department assigned approximately 300 agents to air security, about one third of whom came from the Customs Service. They joined personnel from the FBI, U.S. Marshals, Defense Department and CIA. Soon, a position of Customs Air Security Officer was created and continued until 1974. When the program was discontinued, the men and women who served as Customs Air Security officers were reassigned or secured other government positions.  Within the Customs Service, 672 became Customs Patrol Officers, 155 became Special Agents, 230 were appointed as Customs Inspectors and eleven were selected as Import Specialists.

And when the federal government declared war on drugs, Customs expanded its role from interdicting illicit drugs at ports of entry to providing surveillance on land, sea and air. In this effort, the Customs worked with local and other federal agencies. The Service also saw its resources increase during this time and then reapportioned when the Drug Enforcement Administration was created in 1973.

Across this time period, the role in regulating imports remained central to its mission. When automation was being introduced in the 1970s, an emphasis was on the long-term development of the Automated Merchandise Processing System as a means of executing enforcement responsibilities while speeding the processing of merchandise.

Then in the 1990s, the federal government began examining how the role of the Customs Service should change to meet new security, trade and travel challenges. In 1998, Defense Secretary William Cohen chartered the U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century to address emerging national security issues. The commission foresaw a “direct attack against American citizens on American soil” and recommended sweeping changes to intelligence and security operations. The commission noted the need to recapitalize the capacity of border control agencies (i.e., Customs, U.S. Coast Guard and the Immigration and Naturalization Service) to identify and intercept potential threats without creating barriers to efficient trade and travel.

In its Roadmap for National Security released on Feb. 15, 2001, the commission proposed an “independent, cabinet-level department to plan, coordinate and integrate federal activities involved in homeland security.” Unfortunately, the events of 9/11 occurred before these recommendations could be implemented.

The immediate federal response to 9/11 anticipated greater changes to government operations. Across the country, federal workers volunteered for duty assignments away from home to ensure public safety. Federal agencies quickly detailed staff and assets to the organizations where they were most needed. Employees who would later come together to form DHS and CBP worked side-by-side to return the nation to normality. Customs assigned employees to serve as air marshals and deployed its air and marine assets to secure the U.S. skies and coastlines. The Immigration and Naturalization Service deployed Border Patrol agents under the auspices of Operation Safe Passage to work with Customs officers at ports of entry. Together, these INS and Customs personnel worked 12- to 16-hour days, seven days a week to monitor flights and inspect 100 percent of incoming vehicles at land ports of entry.

Within days of 9/11, the White House created the Homeland Security Office with Thomas Ridge as its head. Congressional legislation was introduced with bipartisan support to establish a department of national homeland security. Following the recommendations of the Hart-Rudman Commission, the bill proposed moving the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Customs, Border Patrol, Coast Guard and the agencies responsible for critical infrastructure protection under this new cabinet-level department.

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 became law on Nov. 25. Then on March 1, 2003, DHS became a cabinet-level department with Ridge as its first secretary. On that day, the functions of the Customs Service were transferred to the bureaus of Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The creation of CBP combined approximately 42,000 employees from the Customs Service, INS, and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). Robert Bonner, the former Customs commissioner, became the first CBP commissioner. On Sept. 3, 2003, DHS combined the historically separate immigration and customs staff positions into the position of CBP officer. CBP officers became the front line at more than 300 land, sea and air ports of entry.

They are joined by CBP agriculture specialists, stationed at major ports of entry, who inspect people, baggage and cargo to protect agricultural and economic interests from harmful pests and diseases as well as Border Patrol and Office of Air and Marine agents who guard the national boundaries and coastlines between ports of entry.

Last modified: 
July 17, 2017