By  on February 9, 2006

WASHINGTON — U.S. Customs and Border Protection, seeking to fulfill a goal set by Congress four years ago, has finally begun hiring specialists and inspectors to curb illegal textile transshipments and fraud, but the agency will share them with the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security.

Congress three years ago began appropriating money — a total of $9.5 million — for Customs to hire 72 people dedicated to textile enforcement. The time lapse created friction between the Bush administration and textile-state lawmakers who charged that Customs failed to properly allocate the funding to hire the personnel.

In May, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who had been appointed just two months earlier, pledged to fill the positions but did not address the delay in hiring.

Five Republican lawmakers sent a letter last week to Deborah Spero, acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, citing the importance of enforcement. The signatories were Reps. Robin Hayes (N.C.), Sue Myrick (N.C.), Bob Inglis (S.C.), Robert Aderholt (Ala.) and Virgil Goode (Va.)

"With the conclusion of a new quota agreement with China in late 2005 and the continued growth of free-trade agreements and preferential trading arrangements, it is anticipated that transshipments and textile fraud will continue to increase to take advantage of these reduced or zero-duty partnerships," the lawmakers wrote. "The ability of the U.S. government to effectively enforce the U.S.-China textile bilateral and to ensure the integrity of our free-trade arrangements is directly dependent upon aggressive enforcement by U.S. Customs and Border Protection."

The U.S. struck an import restraint agreement with China in November, restricting of goods valued at $6 billion annually.

Janet Labuda, director of Customs' textile enforcement and operations division, said the emphasis is on positioning new textile personnel at the ports and "getting people out on the front lines." She said the two agencies work in tandem. Customs and Border Protection visits foreign factories and audits, inspects cargo, analyzes shipments, makes seizures and refers cases to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement division, which conducts criminal investigations and looks for evidence to develop cases for probable cause and prosecution.

Labuda said Customs will have a total of 45 new import, international trade and lab specialists to monitor and crack down on illegal transshipments."All of ours have been hired or are in the process of being hired," Labuda said. "It will be a combination of retraining people [for textile enforcement] and new hires, but mostly new hires."

The ICE division has hired, trained and placed in the field 18 new domestic textile agents, and is training nine more to be placed overseas, said Dean Boyd, press secretary for the division.

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