Bordering on Change

Bordering on Change

U.S. Customs and Border Protection may have enhanced security with a slew of programs since 2001, but even the head of the agency says trade facilitation has suffered in the process.

Customs Commissioner Alan Bersin told brokers and freight forwarders meeting in Phoenix this month heightened security efforts at the ports of entry have made the cargo clearance process too cumbersome, costly and time-consuming.

Customs’ efforts since the September 11 terror attacks to prevent weapons of mass destruction from entering the country were certainly necessary. “The United States was traumatized by 9/11,” Bersin told the annual conference of the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America.

Those efforts include extending the nation’s security borders to the overseas origin point for U.S. imports. Programs such as the Container Security Initiative, advance manifest filing requirements and the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism have helped prevent another terrorist attack in the U.S.

Customs now is reviewing its basic function of clearing cargo at the country’s 326 seaports, airports and border crossings, and is asking some basic commercial questions. “Do we have the processes here at the borders to clear the cargo? How do we simplify and expedite the processes?” Bersin said.

The commissioner is convinced with the proper cargo-clearance processes, implemented through a partnership between Customs and the trade community, the cost of the typical transaction can be reduced 10 to 15 percent. This would complement the Obama administration’s program to streamline government and eliminate regulations that hinder business without improving safety or security.

“Tell us,” Bersin told the brokers, “what are the three dozen ridiculous rules that have to be broken down?”

Customs is approaching border clearance questions from several directions. The overall effort will depend on completion of key programs in the Automated Commercial Environment, the massive and costly automation effort that seems to be endlessly short of completion.

The International Trade Data System is an integral part of ACE because it will present a single window for the trade community in dealing with the 48 government agencies that may play a role in cargo clearance. Under development for years, the ITDS will allow importers and brokers to “see one government” at the border, Bersin said.

Customs also has gone through a significant shuffling of key personnel, including the hiring of executives from the private sector to bring a business perspective to the agency’s efforts.

Cynthia Allen, executive director of the ACE Business Office in the Office of International Trade, was chosen to add balance to development of the ACE program, which until now had been developed by private contractors and agency information technology experts.

Those experts built ACE with technological goals in mind, but didn’t properly address needs of the brokers, who file 95 percent of all cargo entries, and of importers, Allen told the NCBFAA conference. As a result, use of ACE modules that are in effect has been minimal. “If it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work for us,” she said.

Customs appears to be learning the dangers of rolling out ACE programs with great fanfare when they aren’t fully formed. Amy Magnus, district manager in Champlain, N.Y., for A.N. Deringer Logistics, said it’s crucial for Customs to have the policy and desired results firmed up before the functionality is released.

Since being named commissioner in March 2010, Bersin has taken on the development of ACE as a personal mission. “ACE was at the 15-year, $3 billion mark. It was in trouble,” he said.

Customs is moving deliberately to complete development of ACE modules that, over the next year or two, the agency believes can streamline cargo clearance without compromising security needs. Importer security filing, document imaging, post summery corrections, cargo release, account executive pilot programs and centers for excellence and expertise are some of the initiatives and programs Customs is developing.

The programs are being crafted with input from the trade community and other government agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture that, like Customs, have the authority to hold cargo at the border.

Last year, Bersin noted, top executives of key federal agencies with a presence on the border met for the first time in the same room to discuss clearance issues. This should occur regularly, and the trade community should demand it does, Bersin said.

Customs also is consulting more regularly with the NCBFAA and other industry associations representing the trade community. Brenda Smith, Customs’ executive director of trade policy and programs in the Office of International Trade, said private industry should see that “competitiveness” is driving more decisions at the agency.

“CBP didn’t normally worry about economic competitiveness. That was more of a Commerce concern,” Smith said. Now, Customs is very concerned about the cost of transactions at the border and what can be done to reduce those costs while maintaining security. “We’re still working on that vision,” she said.

Allen, at Customs’ Business Office, urged brokers and others in the private sector to participate in public forums on ACE. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help determine how you do business for the next 30 years,” she said.

Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at