(June 13)WASHINGTON, D.C. — Timeliness has long been a concern of produce shippers that send their products across borders. Now, with the Bush administration’s plan to move the U.S. Customs Service and the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service into the proposed Department of Homeland Security, those concerns are increasing.

Additionally, the Immigration and Naturalization Service would move from the Justice Department into homeland security.

Business groups inside and outside the produce industry are already pushing to ensure that President Bush’s plan to shift customs does not overemphasize security issues at the cost of trade.

Industry lobbyists are voicing concern that the plan could slow the modernization of the agency and interfere with the creation of smoother procedures for clearing the billions of dollars in cargo that crosses U.S. borders each day.

“There are alarm bells going off all over town about this,” said Robin Lanier, president of Alliance Management Group in Washington, a consulting firm that has worked with importers to modernize customs procedures.

For the produce industry — where concerns about enforcement issues involving the Customs Service in early June caused Mexican tomato producers to opt out of a 6-year-old suspension agreement — seamless border crossing remain a concern. However, industry leaders haven’t yet voiced dire concerns about any potential problems in Bush’s plan.

“There’s not necessarily a direct fear,” said Lee Frankel, president of the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, which is based in Nogales, Ariz., a major crossing between the U.S. and Mexico. “I think, ultimately, customs is going to be run as the U.S. Customs Service always has been, even if it’s under a different department. (The job) should be able to get done regardless of whether customs is part of the Treasury Department or the Department of Homeland Security.”

The move also raises concerns about potential problems involving guest workers, although industry officials acknowledge that they will have to study the proposal further before they can predict any changes would play out.

“Certainly, anything that would transfer or impact in any way the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) current policy of allowing entry of day workers into the country would be one we’d certainly want to be engaged with,” said Matt McInerney, executive vice president of the Newport Beach, Calif.-based Western Growers Association. “We saw after 9-11 that there were delays in legal workers coming into the country. To that end, we’d want to be part of the process.”

Congressional approval of Bush’s proposal, made in early June, would mark the most significant change to the U.S. Customs Service since it was created in 1789 as part of the Treasury Department to collect tariffs imposed on imports. Until the creation of the income tax in the 20th century, tariffs were the main source of federal revenue.

On a typical day, customs, whose proposed budget for fiscal 2003 is $3.8 billion, clears more than 50,000 trucks and containers and more than 500 oceangoing ships into the U.S., making it the crucial government agency for international commerce.

The Customs Service’s responsibilities likely wouldn’t change, which is the key issue, Frankel said.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 focused industry attention on the importance of smooth traffic across U.S. border stations.
However, some Washington lobbyists have said that turning customs into a homeland security agency could lead government officials to neglect the agency’s work in easing trade. As it is, customs has the interception of illegal drugs and terrorism issues at the borders among its other responsibilities.

Some lobbyists have called for separating customs’ trade role from its duty to stop terrorists and drugs.

However, Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., who heads the House Appropriations Treasury subcommittee, said the two functions are too closely intertwined to separate them.

Customs officers who move cargo, he said, inspect the same shipments for contraband.

“You cannot split the border security from the trade mission,” Istook said.

Other produce industry officials say they want to see the full plan before offering judgment.

“We haven’t fully assessed it, not only the plan for customs, but with APHIS, as well,” McInerney said.

A change with APHIS, McInerney said, would be of particular interest.

“We want to make sure it does not impede APHIS’ mission to focus on pest and disease exclusion issues coming into the country but also (its) mission of opening foreign markets where plant or pest disease is an issue,” he said. “We need … continued support and diligence to resolve any of those issues. Focusing on one to the detriment of the other could be problematic.”

Robert Guenther, vice president of the Alexandria, Va.-based United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association, agreed that any change involving APHIS’ mission would be a concern.

“We work very closely with APHIS in terms of getting increased export research done,” Guenther said. “If there is a phytosanitary barrier in another country, we use that research to remove those barriers. So, we don’t know if there would be the same emphasis or more. That’s what we’re trying to figure out now.”

Shifting Customs to the Department of Homeland Security likely would impact the timeliness of border crossings at first, Guenther said.

“Initially, it will probably have an impact on the process; however, once everyone understands the rules and regulations, everybody will adjust to that,” he said.

The Plant Safeguarding Alliance likely would issue a statement on Bush’s plan, once it has studied Bush’s plan in detail, Guenther said.

“Are there going to be changes in the objectives of the agency? Right now that’s not clear,” he said.

Some business groups also are leery that Congress might want to alter Bush’s proposal.

“There’s a lot of momentum on the hill,” Guenther said.

Another priority will be preserving funding for the construction of a new computer system that will allow importers to pay duties and clear the border faster and more efficiently, Istook said.
The computer system, already under development, is expected to cost $300 million this year and will be completed in four years, Istook said.

Importers hope the new system will eliminate many of the inefficiencies in customs procedures. For example, all cargo is subject to potentially time-consuming searches. But with the computer system, importers will be able to certify large amounts of cargo as having met U.S. regulations before it lands on American soil, allowing it to pass through much more quickly.