CBP makes strides on trade facilitation
In an effort to reduce regulatory burdens on highly compliant U.S. importers, Customs authorities have pledged to change their procedures to allow textile and apparel products to flow downstream rather than detain them at the port of entry while verifying documentation for potential commercial fraud.
Anne Maricich, then-acting executive director of trade policy and programs at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told industry representatives last month that the agency is in the final stage of developing a new policy on checking a shipment’s country of origin for companies that participate in the Importer Self-Assessment program.
ISA is a voluntary program — a commercial sister to the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism on the security side — under which importers that have tight internal controls for their import processes and maintain an audit trail that demonstrates the accuracy of customs entries and payments, can self-police their compliance, avoid costly regulatory audits and enjoy other benefit such as faster cargo release.
CBP periodically sends teams of trade specialists to textile production regions such as Hong Kong to visit factories and verify that articles of clothing are actually manufactured on site and not transshipped from another country. Some importers mislabel the country of origin on their goods to avoid higher duties, quotas or embargoes in place for certain countries. When questions cannot be answered through a fact-finding visit or because of lack of access, CBP typically will detain the shipment and ask the importer to provide production records to prove the clothing was produced in the country listed on the customs entry.
CBP can also demand redelivery of the goods if they have been released to the importer for distribution to stores. Import specialists require information about the entire life history of the import transaction, from the purchase order, to cutting and sewing tickets, payroll stubs and other production records that provide evidence of where the labor input was conducted. The document review process can take several weeks and lead to extensive storage costs and potential lost sales even if the shipment is ultimately approved.
Maricich, who has since returned to her previous job as director of policy for revenue and antidumping, said CBP realized it could liberalize its approach because ISA companies in most cases tended not to have problems with transshipment and eventually had their goods released. Under the new policy, those trusted importers would be allowed to move products to distribution centers and stores while gathering the necessary documentation for CBP.
The new policy, which was announced during the Commercial Operations Advisory Committee (COAC) meeting last month, is to be released within weeks.
Some importers say they hope the new policy will also require immediate notice that a container has been targeted for an origin verification, rather than waiting until an import specialist gets around to sending out a formal request for information after the goods have moved to market.
The final detention approach, if it conforms with preliminary descriptions, is “a big win for our trade,” said Brad Shorser, customs compliance manager for Sears Holdings.
The change in textile detention policy is one of several new efforts by the Office of International Trade to respond to industry requests to eliminate bureaucratic hurdles that complicate the import process. The new mindset espoused by Assistant Commissioner Daniel Baldwin is that alternative ways to verify compliance of duty payments, classification and other documentation issues are available without holding up shipments for physical inspection at the port of entry. COAC has been pressing Customs for more conditional release of goods instead of holding containers at the ports in order to keep commerce flowing and free up government resources to focus on inspections of high-risk shipments or for follow-up checks.
Maricich said CBP is also working with the Environmental Protection Agency to loosen enforcement policy regarding labeling of certain imported vehicles and off-road engines. The pending approach would move away from immediate seizure of goods towards a system that allows for correction of any labeling problem. One possible solution is to detain the products at the importer's premises rather than at a CBP impound lot and then verify that the correct label has been installed, she suggested afterwards.
Meanwhile, Shorser, who heads COAC’s subcommittee on trade compliance, complained that a recent policy change designed to reduce demurrage charges for C-TPAT member companies by limiting container “holds” to cargo targeted for inspection doesn’t provide much benefit because the importer can’t gain access to the goods anyway.
Earlier this year, CBP announced that multiple containers arriving under a single Customs entry will no longer have to be held on the terminal and incur late pickup charges if only one container in the group is targeted for an inspection.
Shippers often group containers on a single entry to avoid paying the merchandise-processing fee multiple times. The user fee is graduated according to the value of the shipment, but tops out at $485 per entry for shipments worth $230,000 or more. But many shippers are unbundling their bills of lading so they don’t get hung up by an enforcement action on another ocean box.
Customs exams can take several days and a shipper with multiple boxes listed on one customs form often pays demurrage fees on the remaining containers until the inspection is completed and CBP releases the shipment. Most terminals now only allow shippers five days of free time before they must pick up their boxes or get slapped with a storage surcharge.
Under the new procedure, the importer can truck the remaining containers out of the terminal to its premises, but has to keep the container intact and not bust open the seal until CBP lifts the hold on the entire shipment. The importer will also have to make the other containers available to CBP, if necessary, after the initial inspection.
Shorser said Sears doesn’t bother to move the remaining containers from the port or railhead because it can’t guarantee that the contents will not be disturbed once a container reaches a distribution center.
“If instructions for distribution have already been pushed through, then there’s no guarantee that those containers won’t be worked. I don’t want to take that chance,” he said after the meeting.
Shorser’s subcommittee originally proposed that all containers under the same customs entry that were not designated for inspection should be allowed to move out without conditions. Sensing CBP reluctance to go that far, it has offered an amended proposal that would allow containers on other B/Ls on the same entry to be picked up and unloaded without restriction, he said.
Customs should promote the use of bundled B/Ls because it reduces the number of transactions CBP has to process, he added.