U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske

WASHINGTON — Customs and Border Protection Commissioner R. Gil Kerlikowske told a Senate panel Wednesday that his agency has beefed up its enforcement team to be more aggressive on detentions of shipments suspected of being made by forced labor.

Kerlikowske, testifying before the Senate Finance Committee, said his agency has “added” 24 new Customs officials to a task force charged with investigating unfair and illegal imports, and will self-initiate cases, a first for an agency that has traditionally relied on petitions to trigger investigations.

The crackdown stems from a new Customs and trade enforcement bill that took effect in early February removing the “consumptive demand” exemption that strengthened the authority of CBP and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to detain imported goods suspected or alleged to having been made with forced adult and child labor.

For decades, Customs officials were prohibited from detaining imports if those products weren’t made in sufficient quantity in America to meet total U.S. demand. With the removal of the exemption, Customs can now detain all imported products suspected of being made by forced labor based on due diligence.

The law also strengthened enforcement of dumping and duty evasion, as well as efforts to combat the importation of counterfeits and protect intellectual property rights.

CBP announced in early May that it has established a trade enforcement task force as it intensifies its enforcement efforts related to the interdiction of imported products suspected of using forced labor, as well as counterfeits and antidumping and countervailing duty laws.

“I’ve made it very clear and it has been very clear from not only this committee but also in the intent of Congress that a much more aggressive and assertive enforcement posture is needed within Customs and Border Protection,” Kerlikowske said. “By announcing the fact that we have a trade remedy law enforcement division, by adding essentially a swat team within CBP to look for these violations, it’s important.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) asked Kerlikowske how Customs plans to achieve the goal of blocking all imports made with forced labor from coming into the U.S.

Kerlikowske said non-governmental organizations have “essentially the boots on the ground in these foreign countries where they are incredibly knowledgeable about things that could be made with forced labor.”

“We need their information,” he said. “We need to be able to get back to them that we’ve acted upon their information. That exchange is going to be critical. The other part is we just received authorization for nine additional foreign government attachés through the State Department. So the more people we have overseas to learn about this information, the better we’ll be able to target.”

Brown asked the commissioner if CBP also plans to self-initiate investigations, which the agency has not done in the past.

“I do plan to do that,” Kerlikowske said. “The response has always been that we want petitions and we assist in the petition to make sure it meets all of the requirements. I want us to be leaning much more forward, and where we get information we should be able to follow up and be able to utilize other investigative resources within the Department of Homeland Security, within the federal government, to move aggressively on these, not just waiting for the petitions.”

Customs detained the first shipment of suspected imported forced labor products under the new law at the end of March, holding a shipment containing several imported products, including viscose rayon fiber, calcium chloride, soda ash and caustic soda manufactured or mined by Tangshan Sanyou Group based in China.

Brands and retailers that import billions of dollars’ worth of merchandise from around the globe are closely watching how Customs proceeds with these kinds of detentions.

“On March 29 and April 13, I issued what are called withhold release orders to two large shipments of chemicals, fibers and potassium products, all as a result of a reasonable suspicion standard that they were derived from forced labor in China,” he said. “In other words, they were not allowed to be brought here in this country. You will see more of that.”

Since March 10, CBP has “executed several withhold release orders related to suspicion of goods made by convict or forced labor,” according to Kerlikowske’s written testimony.

“I think our staff has heard at least 100 times that we have to put points on the board,” he added. “That means those withhold release orders, and seizures and going after the money. We can be much more aggressive than in fact we have been in the past and we will be.”