In a wide-ranging discussion at the Coalition of New England Companies for Trade (CONECT) annual Trade & Transportation Conference, held in Newport, R.I., in December, two high-level U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials outlined some of the agency’s priorities for 2022. AnnMarie R. Highsmith, Executive Assistant Commissioner, Office of Trade, and William A. Ferrara, Executive Assistant Commissioner, Office of Field Operations, largely focused their remarks on two areas that have a deep impact on U.S. importers’ day-to-day business: trade facilitation—moving goods through complex, federally established import processes—and enforcement—ensuring compliance with trade-related laws, regulations, and security protocols.
Highlights from their unusually informal, Q&A-style session included six major topics:
Forced-labor prevention: In 2021, CBP executed a record number of forced labor actions, including issuing “withhold release orders” (WROs) to seize goods made with forced labor and prevent them from entering U.S. commerce. Forced-labor prevention is a high priority for both Congress and CBP, and traders can expect more such actions in 2022, Highsmith said. She and Ferrara both emphasized the need to stop the human suffering involved and urged companies to share information about suspected violations that CBP would then investigate. CBP can also help importers know the right questions to ask their suppliers about labor, Ferrara said. Highsmith, meanwhile, noted that importers who are not certain whether their goods would be subject to seizure can request a ruling through the same process used to obtain duty- and compliance-related decisions.
CTPAT updates: “We haven’t made the progress we should have” with participation in and compliance with the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (CTPAT) cargo security program, and “it’s time for a little bit of a facelift,” Ferrara said. While some things are non-negotiable, an “honest conversation” between CBP and stakeholders should lead to improvements in program benefits, a longstanding concern for participants. In 2022, CBP will release a CTPAT app that will make it easier and faster to find information about program details, he said.
Technology adoption: CBP continues to seek ways to more effectively select and screen cargo for physical inspection, Ferrara said. He advocated wider adoption of non-intrusive inspection technology, where containers are screened using x-ray and similar technology, and only physically opened if an anomaly is detected. One way to facilitate and speed the process, he noted, is to have inspectors in a central location remotely viewing images from multiple ports of entry. Non-intrusive inspection “is a game-changer if we use it properly,” he said. In the future it will likely be incorporated into normal processing to speed transactions, improve security, and reduce risks for CBP personnel.
Communication with the trade: The current charter for the Commercial Customs Operations Advisory Committee (COAC), a group of customs and trade experts who advise on proposed changes to regulations, policies, or practices and recommend improvements to CBP’s commercial operations, has expired and the group is temporarily suspended. Highsmith said that proposed members’ names are now undergoing a lengthy approval process and meetings may start in early 2022.
Modernizing processes, security, and information systems: CBP’s 21st Century Customs Framework (21 CCF) is a plan to modernize processes, technology, security, and enforcement in light of a business, security, and economic environment that has changed dramatically in recent years. The framework aims to better address such comparatively new and emerging areas as e-commerce, process automation, data sharing, and forced labor, among many others. One priority for 2022 will be to develop a plan for “what ACE 2.0 should look like,” Highsmith said, referring to the Automated Commercial Environment system that, after three decades, requires significant updates. Blockchain, interoperability between computer systems, and digital twin technology are all under discussion, she said. Stakeholder feedback is key, and CBP will set up additional topic-specific working groups in 2022.
Highsmith also commented on the Customs Modernization Act of 2021 proposed by Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, which reflects some of the 21 CCF’s objectives. The bill would give CBP more authority to collect and utilize trade data; increase the use of electronic documentation; expand recordkeeping requirements; revise how CBP applies liability, penalties, and seizures; and authorize other changes in enforcement procedures. Highsmith said that while CBP has been “providing technical assistance on the language” in the bill, it is “not fully baked,” and Cassidy is actively seeking stakeholders’ input. Audience members asserted that the bill focuses heavily on tightening enforcement and is “light on trade facilitation.” Highsmith responded that the bill “is a good start,” and emphasized the importance of providing feedback: “We won’t get what we need unless we come up with something we can all agree on.”
Priority trade initiatives: CBP will continue to devote enforcement resources to seven areas it has identified as representing high-risk areas that can cause significant revenue loss, harm the U.S. economy, or threaten health and safety. These areas include agriculture and quotas, antidumping and countervailing duties, import product safety, intellectual property rights, revenue and duty collection, textiles and apparel, and trade agreements.
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