LOS ANGELES — Responding to complaints about delayed shipments, one of the Bush administration’s top Customs officials said here late Wednesday that increased smuggling, counterfeit documents and illegal transshipments required more vigilance at ports.
Janet Labuda, the U.S. Customs director of textile and apparel enforcement, told members of the California Fashion Association, “I’m not here to apologize.”
She defended the administration’s tighter controls as necessary to keep illegal goods out of U.S. commerce and level the playing field for manufacturers that import legally.
She dubbed 2004 “the year of shenanigans” because of the anticipation of no quota carry-overs later this year. On Jan. 1, quota restrictions cease to exist for 147 World Trade Organization nations and a prevalent practice of borrowing against the following year’s quotas could halt countless apparel and textile shipments later this year.
Many manufacturers have complained about U.S. Customs’ practice of flagging an entire category — such as knit sweaters suspected of avoiding U.S. quota restrictions by transshipping through other countries — whether or not a specific shipment is suspected of wrongdoing. Industry estimates are that tens of millions of dollars worth of goods have been held up past retail delivery dates this year on the West Coast.
According to Labuda, $73 billion worth of apparel and textiles in 2003 shipped from overseas passed through Los Angeles and Long Beach ports. Last year, $200 million worth of illegal goods were seized at those ports because of illegal transshipments. But, Labuda said, based on current technology and manpower, U.S. Customs has been able to check only 1 percent of goods.
“We only look where the highest risks are,” she said.
Labuda told manufacturers to protect themselves against seizures and delays.
“Ask the proper questions [of a foreign factory], follow the paperwork of assembly of goods, call that factory, see if anybody’s there,” she said.
She also encouraged companies to contact embassies in Washington to ensure there is an actual manufacturing base there.
As for what’s expected in 2005, “Who knows?” said Labuda. “The fat lady hasn’t taken her costume off the rack. She hasn’t sung yet.”
Meanwhile, in Washington, Customs added Tokyo to its list of foreign ports where its inspectors will be based to prescreen U.S.-bound cargo for potential terrorist threats. There are now 19 foreign ports designated as members of the U.S. Container Security Initiative. Cargo arriving from a CSI port is less apt to be inspected upon entry into the U.S.