CNS 2019: E-commerce places historic, unexpected pressures on U.S Customs

MIAMI – This year, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency celebrates its 230th year since its founding in the earliest days of the Republic, in 1789. Thomas Overacker, executive director of cargo and conveyance security for CBP’s Office of Field Operations, said yesterday during the CNS Partnership Conference that this year may be the most difficult in its long history.

Whereas normally the agency would pick up an average of 1,000 individuals illegally crossing the borders – mostly single men, searching for higher-paying work – today the average is closer to 3,000 per day, most of whom are family units, which include many more women and children, seeking asylum and fearing that the border will soon close. Last Tuesday, he added, saw a record-high number of border arrests: more than 5,200.

While most of the problems the agency is having involve immigration and illicit narcotics, it also has deleterious effect on cross-border cargo shipments, Overacker said in his Monday CNS presentation, “The Effects of eCommerce on Customs.” To handle the crush of recent asylum-seekers, CBP has had to shift 750 officers that normally would be handling the agencies 1 million average cross-border cargo shipments per day to the southern border with Mexico.

As a result of the reduction on strength, “wait times that were once measured in minute are now stretched to hours” in some border towns, Overacker said. And with the political situation seemingly at a standstill, he added that he sees no end in sight for the extra CBP workload.

All of these pressures are exacerbated by the crush of e-commerce, not only in volume but in the confusion over how e-commerce is regulated. Overacker listed a number of challenges that have to be addressed concerning e-commerce and customs and how CBP must think differently at how it looks at import transactions.

“Because the nature of goods from the United States has changed to go online, we need to identify who the actual responsible party is,” he said. “In this e-commerce era, we have different actors. Is it the marketplace that’s causing the good to come? Is it the foreign seller that’s responsible? Or is it the online purchaser? Which one it’s the importer? How can we be sure that that party is in compliance with all the necessary regulations?”

“I’ve never seen a larger disruption than what we’re facing today,” Overacker summed up. If e-commerce continues to grow, he said, “I don’t know how we’re going to manage it unless we have what I consider the greatest tool that we have in our toolbox at CBP, and that is partnerships.”

The partnerships referred to with law enforcement, express carriers and other supply chain stakeholders go back to the trauma of the 9/11 terrorists attacked and the October 2010 attempted attack on a passenger jet with a printer-cartridge bomb.

The growth of the soon-to-be-mandatory advance air cargo screening (ACAS) program, which has grown  to about 189 participants, with another 120 or so to go, based on the number of air waybills CBP tends to receive.

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