Anyone who thinks David V. Aguilar will be a mere caretaker at Customs and Border Protection should think again. Granted, the new acting commissioner has to fill the shoes of his predecessor, Alan Bersin, but words such as “bold,” “innovative,” and “forward leaning” crop up in his conversation too many times to make you think Customs will be on cruise control.
Aguilar was named acting commissioner at the end of 2011, after Bersin, whose recess appointment was expiring, resigned.
Aguilar was Bersin’s deputy for the past two years, and as Customs’ chief operating officer had a hand in shaping the Customs of today. The trade community credits Bersin for taking a new look at old programs, and aggressively pushing the agency to balance its missions of security and trade facilitation.
Bersin, who this month joined the Department of Homeland Security in the newly created position of assistant secretary of international affairs and chief diplomatic officer, never received Senate confirmation to complete his tenure under the current administration. That means Aguilar will be leading Customs into 2013, when the president will name a new commissioner.
“You can go in for a three-month stretch as acting and be a caretaker,” said Samuel H. Banks, executive vice president of Sandler Travis Trade Advisory Services. “He can’t afford to be a caretaker. The much harder thing is that Aguilar is going to be walking into the commissioner’s job for a year to 18 months. He’s going to be under tremendous stress as the acting commissioner.
“I acted for a year, and I certainly didn’t try to let any grass grow under my feet,” said Banks, who was acting commissioner from September 1997 to September 1998.
Aguilar is proud of the agency’s track record. Customs has been bold in advancing programs when skeptics may have believed the agency would be cautious. “I think it is an understatement to say that innovative efforts have been undertaken over the last couple of years,” Aguilar said in an interview. “We are setting a path forward to ensure that we do not step back in any way. The foundation has been set; now we continue to build on it.
“I know that we have undertaken several issues that some would have said, ‘This is quite the challenge, but let’s wait and see,’” he said. “Well, the accomplishment of those bold efforts has proved that we have moved forward.”
Last August, for example, the Transportation Security Administration was struggling to meet a congressional deadline for screening all inbound international air cargo. Customs worked with the TSA and the air cargo industry to develop the Air Cargo Advanced Screening system, a modification of its existing targeting system the TSA could use to spot high-risk shipments. Pilot testing began last May with the air express carriers and is being expanded to the airlines that carry cargo on passenger aircraft.
Customs under Bersin took big steps toward modernizing the process of entering goods. A “simplified processing” pilot is under way. Aguilar called that the foundation for automated cargo release within the Automated Commercial Environment.
Cargo release is an ACE feature that importers eagerly await as the gateway to modern, efficient goods management. But ACE is years overdue and millions over budget. Within the past two years, Customs has made significant progress. What it needs now is money from a Congress that wants to cut government spending to reduce record deficits.
“It is no secret that budgets are low right now,” Aguilar said. “It is no secret that we have said we are not going to step back, but we are going to be very judicious in how we build our business cases. “Cindy Allen (head of Customs’ ACE development office) is going to be taking a look at all the things that exist, that may need to be adjusted or improved, and the things that are yet to come. We will build the business case for each one, then move forward to Congress to get the budget requirement that we’re going to have.”
The second source for ACE funds would come from the shutdown of the Automated Commercial System, ACE’s predecessor that was built in the 1980s. Two major remaining ACS functions, automated manifest systems for ocean and rail cargo, should be replaced with ACE manifest systems early this year.
“We are taking every opportunity to spend less on operations and maintenance for ACS, and redirect the money toward ACE,” Aguilar said. “We recognize that ACS has to be sunsetted, but how do we do more of it as quickly as possible?”
Aguilar has been in government service for 32 years. He was chief of the U.S. Border Patrol in 2003 when it merged into the newly organized Customs and Border Protection under the DHS. He is the first senior executive to head the organization who has not come from the legacy U.S. Customs Service.
“David has been around for a long time, and while it may have been on the Border Patrol side, he has been actively involved in what’s going on,” said Carol B. Hallett, customs commissioner from 1989 to 1993, and who now represents the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on the Advisory Committee for Commercial Operations, or COAC.
“I know he’s reaching out to COAC and other people in the trade community,” Hallett said. “I think you will find people working hard to work with David, and they won’t have to work hard. He’s really committed to this.
“We were all disappointed that Bersin was not confirmed. He had done a terrific job, but that was politics,” Hallett said. “I’ve known David for a very long time, and I feel very confident in his abilities to continue the progress that has been made in the short time that Alan was there. He can also depend on a good team to keep the momentum going.”