WASHINGTON — Importers this week turned up the volume on their complaints on why it’s taken so long for the government to issue final Customs rules on how it will enforce a trade bill that took effect three years ago.

The law granting special trade benefits to the nations of the Caribbean Basin and sub-Saharan Africa took effect in 2000, yet importers are still operating under a set of interim guidelines. On Wednesday, the American Apparel & Footwear Association sent a letter to Tom Ridge, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security — which oversees Customs — to complain about the delay.

“It’s like looking at a road map that is half compete,” said Kevin Burke, president and chief executive officer of the AAFA. “In the meantime, we have to travel in a region that doesn’t have a map. It’s like flying blind at times.”

An official at the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, which is part of DHS, claimed the agency is actively working on final regulations.

In the meantime, apparel manufacturers, retailers and importers sourcing in the region are having problems with interpreting complex interim regulations, according to trade associations.

Customs in March issued interim regulations governing apparel sourcing under the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act, African Growth & Opportunity Act and the Andean Trade Promotion & Drug Eradication Act. The ATPDEA was implemented 11 months ago.

But some industry trade groups claim they are vague and difficult to interpret.

Brenda Jacobs, counsel for the U.S. Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, said companies are frustrated.

“These are important programs that are time limited,” said Jacobs. “The longer the period of uncertainty and the closer you get to the end, it can create a disincentive to do business under the programs, which works against the original intent of Congress.”

Myles Harmon, director of the commercial rulings division for the Bureau of Customs, said the agency had to issue an interim regulatory package earlier this year because legislative changes were made to AGOA and CBTPA in the Trade Act of 2002.

“We needed to go through the comment period and analysis process,” said Harmon. “We are certainly actively working on [a final regulatory package]. We understand the trade is interested in an answer and we want to be expeditious about it.”Harmon said the door is open at Customs to apparel companies that have questions about the interim regulations.

“Companies have the ability to talk to us and ask interpretive questions without waiting for regulations,” Harmon said. “We try to give informal and formal advice in respect to issues when they arise.”

For the year ended July 31, imports of textiles and apparel from the Caribbean region totaled 4.03 billion square meters equivalent and accounted for 9.8 percent of the U.S. import market for those categories, while imports from sub-Saharan Africa totaled 372.6 million SME and accounted for 0.9 percent of the U.S. import market, according to Commerce Department figures. Imports from the Andean region totaled 230.3 million SME and accounted for 0.6 percent of the total U.S. import market.

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