At a time of transition in the U.S. government, members of the trade community were greeted with a note of reassurance at U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s East Coast Trade Symposium held in Arlington, Virginia on December 1-2. “During my three years as commissioner, one thing I learned from the trade community and from so many of the people in this room is how important it is to have continuity and consistency,” said CBP Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske. “The team that will continue to be in place at Customs and Border Protection will be one that has expertise, knows the issues, knows you, and is going to continue to be a strong supporter.”
The event, which was the third and last trade symposium Commissioner Kerlikowske will preside over, drew nearly 900 attendees. Entitled, “Trade’s Impact on American Health, Safety, and Economic Prosperity,” the symposium emphasized coordinated border management in the North American region and the dynamics of the supply chain.
In his opening remarks, the commissioner spoke about the agency’s realignment. “We did some reorganizing to streamline, but also perhaps more importantly to give people greater expanded authority and decision-making outside of and beyond the level of the deputy commissioner and commissioner. That should speed things up. That should improve things, and frankly, give you a level of assurance,” he said.
Commissioner Kerlikowske also highlighted some of the agency’s accomplishments during his 30-month tenure. He noted that the single window, a U.S. government-wide, automated cargo processing system, has transformed the country’s trade processes. “We know it hasn’t been smooth sailing, but the amount of progress during these last couple of years has been tremendous and it couldn’t have happened without our partner government agencies and the cooperation, support and feedback you all have given,” he said.
As part of the single window effort, the commissioner explained that CBP’s partner government agencies have automated more than 300 paper forms.
“We’re receiving shipment data earlier and have greater visibility into that data,” he said. “We’re on track to really implement coordinated border management with our colleagues.”
Another area that the commissioner spoke about was forced labor. “The Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act that the president signed in February made it very clear that enforcement in this area is a priority. Goods made with forced labor are no longer allowed into the country,” he said. “I’ve signed withhold release orders on several commodities from China including soda ash, calcium chloride, potassium products, stevia and its derivatives, and peeled garlic. It’s imperative that companies examine their supply chains,” he added. “We have talked about this continually, the importance of everybody being in this together, making sure that contractors, subcontractors, and other people in the global supply chain are working hard to make sure that none of us is involved with forced labor and child labor.”
The commissioner also spoke about how CBP’s enforcement of antidumping and countervailing duty laws is critical to leveling the playing field for American businesses. He noted that in fiscal year 2016, CBP enforced 364 antidumping/countervailing duty orders covering around 150 products. “$11.2 billion of imported goods were subject to those duties and we collected $1.8 billion in deposits,” he said. “We’re working with the private sector on collection, because everyone knows that collection is very difficult.”
Similarly, Commissioner Kerlikowske shared the agency’s progress with intellectual property rights enforcement. During fiscal year 2016, CBP and Homeland Security Investigations made over 31,000 intellectual property rights seizures. “That was an all-time high and it was a nine percent increase over fiscal year 2015,” he said, adding that “the products had a retail value of more than $1.3 billion.”
Among the many other accomplishments that were discussed was the creation of a new e-commerce and small business branch within CBP’s Office of Trade. The new branch reflects the new internet-based business models and the shift to direct shipping to customers. “We are very much aware of the explosion of growth in e-commerce and we need to be up to the task,” said Commissioner Kerlikowske.
The two-day event, held at the Hyatt Regency in Crystal City, featured a number of panel discussions. One session shared perspectives from the leaders of North America’s customs organizations. The panel, led by former CBP Commissioner Alan Bersin, now the assistant secretary for international affairs and chief diplomatic officer at the Department of Homeland Security, included Commissioner Kerlikowske, the Administrator General of Customs for Mexico Ricardo Treviño, and the Canada Border Services Agency’s newly appointed Executive Vice President Tina Namiesniowski.
“Strengthening the relationship between Canada, the United States, and Mexico continues to be a priority in Canada,” said Executive Vice President Namiesniowski. “If you look at the North American economy compared to other economies in the world, it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that we are very much mindful of the importance of how integrated we are. The actions of one country have implications and potential effects on the actions in other countries.”
Administrator General Treviño echoed her sentiments. “We have to work on being one region, not three countries. We do that by making our borders and our partnerships very secure,” he said.
Another panel discussion focused on the challenges of trade enforcement and facilitation in international trade. “The dynamics of international trade from an ocean carrier perspective has really gone beyond the bounds of moving cargo from port to port,” said panelist Michael Young, vice president of process and systems services at Orient Overseas Container Line, a Hong Kong-based container shipping and logistics service company. There’s much more complexity in terms of doing things and that’s why it’s so important to maintain a dialogue with a lot of agencies. Not just with CBP, but also with other government partner agencies.
Attendees also had a chance to hear from CBP’s senior leadership during a Town Hall-style panel. “This Trade Symposium has allowed us to look back over a fairly long period of time, eight to 10 years, and see what’s different” said Brenda Smith, executive assistant commissioner for CBP’s Office of Trade. “Many of our efforts have come to fruition including the single window; completion of the core elements of ACE, our cargo processing system; the successful establishment of the Border Interagency Executive Council, a senior level decision-making body among the U.S. federal agencies; along with a lot of the process simplification that has been underway for quite some time. We still have more to go, but I think we have reached a major milestone this year with completion of a lot of these efforts.”
Todd Owen, executive assistant commissioner of CBP’s Office of Field Operations, gave a progress report from an operational perspective. The Centers of Excellence and Expertise were one of the many initiatives he discussed. “All 10 of the Centers are operational and have fully staffed senior leadership,” he said. Owen also noted that all 988 of the agency’s import specialists have been transitioned into the centers. The next step, he explained, will be to transition entry specialists and liquidation specialists to further compliment the staff. “The Centers are really in a good place and on a good path forward. The additional functionality that we now have in our ACE cargo processing system has enabled the Centers to keep marching ahead.”
Owen also discussed how the agency had achieved significant results by revising the operational settings of its radiation portal monitor equipment. “Every piece of cargo that comes into the country is scanned for radiation by a radiation portal monitor,” said Owen. “We’ve been deploying this technology since 2003.” Owen explained that in the past there has been a problem with naturally occurring radioactive materials such as granite countertops, clay roof tiles, or even the potassium in bananas setting off the alarms.
“In the last decade, the technology has matured to a point where we can reduce the settings and be more sensitive for those threat materials that give us concern,” he said. “Because of these adjustments, which have now been deployed at 29 seaports and 22 land border crossings, we’ve been able to reduce the alarm rate by 79 percent. So this is significant.” Owen pointed out that during the last year, there has been “260,000 fewer alarms of our radiation portal monitors. And what that translates to is 62,500 hours less of traffic being delayed as vehicles leave the ports,” he said. Furthermore, Owen told the audience that “125,000 less hours of officer time was needed to adjudicate these alarms.” As a result, “we were able to free up 80 officers and assign them to different duties. So this is a very positive technological advancement for us,” he said.
Maria Luisa Boyce, CBP’s senior advisor for the private sector and trade engagement, spoke about how CBP’s partnership with the trade community is vital to the agency’s enhanced efforts in trade enforcement. “We are taking a very forward learning posture on enforcement. Having an enforcement conversation today is much different than it was 10 years ago,” said Boyce. “Today, our discussions are in partnership with industry. We have learned that CBP cannot do this alone. It is critically important that our partnership with you remains strong and that everything we do is informed and based on the reality of the movement of goods through your supply chains.”
North American Summit
A North American Summit was held on the second day of the Trade Symposium. It was the first time a significant portion of the event was dedicated solely to the region. “Canada and Mexico are the United States’ second and third largest trading partners respectively with trade of $1.3 trillion annually,” said Mark Koumans, CBP assistant commissioner of International Affairs, who moderated the summit’s opening session on strengthening North American competitiveness. “As our three countries advance, there are initiatives, especially our single window programs, which allow us to streamline processes and requirements to the greatest extent possible to foster free and competitive trade in North America.”
The summit also included panel discussions that focused on the North American brokers’ perspective and on how government agencies can harmonize their efforts to achieve a safe and secure North American coordinated border.
The importance of including the summit was recognized. “The world is no longer looking at a country to country situation. In many cases, there are some strategic alliances such as economic coordination between countries. North America is certainly one of those very large and powerful economic alliances,” said Ana Hinojosa, the director of compliance and facilitation of the World Customs Organization, who gave a presentation about the latest WCO initiatives on the first day of the symposium. “Many countries are looking to see how they can streamline within their groupings—whether it be the European Union, the Eurasian Customs Union, or even down in South America, the Mercosur countries are looking to work with trusted partners so that they can create smoother and simpler processing to promote further economic growth in that area. North America has great opportunities as a region that will give it greater strength.”
A number of breakout sessions were also held on the second day. Topics ranged from e-commerce, exports, and trade enforcement to the Centers of Excellence and Expertise and ACE. For some, the breakout sessions were a major draw. First-time attendee, Caitlin Russell, an international trade compliance analyst from McCormick & Company, an international spice and flavoring manufacturer headquartered in Sparks, Maryland, wanted to learn more about ACE. “I’m interested in learning how things are progressing with the partner government agencies that have come on board, particularly the Food and Drug Administration, because we work with them the most,” said Russell. “I wanted to see if things are going smoothly or if there are any large hiccups that other organizations might be experiencing. It might help us mitigate or avoid any issues that might occur.”
Others who attended this year’s symposium came for other reasons. “I’ve been coming to trade symposiums for the last seven years now,” said Christa Hurley, the customs & trade compliance manager at H.C. Starck North American Trading, an importer of specialized metal powders based in Newton, Massachusetts. “The symposium is a valuable educational event for CBP to share information with the trade community and any challenges they may see for the upcoming year. The opportunity to speak directly with customs officials is extremely important to me.”
Jennifer Miner, the new counsellor of agriculture and food at the Embassy of Canada in Washington, D.C., was another first time attendee at the trade symposium. “I was trying to find out what activities are going on, what the industry concerns are, especially in terms of what companies are experiencing at the border. I wanted to see how we may be able to help facilitate things while still maintaining food safety, plant and animal health,” said Miner, who was pleasantly surprised to discover how collaborative the U.S. and Canada are. “Because of the shared border, it’s been reassuring to see that we are working so closely together and that actual progress is being made.”