Customs and Border Protection:

Improved Planning Needed to Strengthen Trade Enforcement

GAO-17-618: Published: Jun 12, 2017. Publicly Released: Jun 12, 2017.

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Contact:

Kimberly Gianopoulos
(202) 512-8612
GianopoulosK@gao.gov

 

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Customs and Border Protection enforces customs and trade laws that protect the U.S. economy and the health and safety of the American people. CBP staff conduct trade enforcement activities at more than 300 ports by, among other things, collecting revenue, identifying noncompliant imports, and seizing prohibited goods, such as counterfeit drugs.

However, we found that CBP generally had not met the staffing levels set by Congress for trade positions and that these shortfalls could impact CBP’s ability to effectively enforce trade laws (e.g., fewer cargo inspections). We recommended that CBP develop a long-term hiring plan for trade positions.

Example of Counterfeit Drugs Seized by CBP

Photo of big box with packaged pills in it.

Photo of big box with packaged pills in it.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Kimberly Gianopoulos
(202) 512-8612
GianopoulosK@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

Two offices within U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) enforce U.S. trade laws and protect revenue. The Office of Trade develops policies to guide CBP's trade enforcement efforts, while the Office of Field Operations conducts a range of trade processing and enforcement activities at U.S. ports. CBP's previously port-centric approach to trade enforcement has shifted to a national-level, industry-focused approach with the establishment of the Office of Field Operations' 10 Centers of Excellence and Expertise. These Centers represent a shift in trade operations, centralizing the processing of certain imported goods on a national scale through a single Center rather than individual ports of entry.

Counterfeit Goods Seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at a Port in New York

Counterfeit Goods Seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at a Port in New York

CBP conducts trade enforcement across seven high-risk issue areas using a risk-based approach, but its plans generally lack performance targets that would enable it to assess the effectiveness of its enforcement activities. Violations in the high-risk issue areas can cause significant revenue loss, harm the U.S. economy, or threaten the health and safety of the American people. CBP's trade enforcement activities reduce risk of noncompliance and focus efforts on high-risk imports, according to CBP. For example, CBP conducts targeting of goods, conducts audits and verifications of importers, seizes prohibited goods, collects duties, and assesses penalties. However, CBP cannot assess the effectiveness of its activities without developing performance targets as suggested by leading practices for managing for results.

Over the past 5 fiscal years, CBP generally has not met the minimum staffing levels set by Congress for four of nine positions that perform customs revenue functions, and it generally has not met the optimal staffing level targets identified by the agency for these positions. Staffing shortfalls can impact CBP's ability to enforce trade effectively, for example, by leading to reduced compliance audits and decreased cargo inspections, according to CBP officials. CBP cited several challenges to filling staffing gaps, including that hiring for trade positions is not an agency-wide priority. Contrary to leading practices in human capital management, CBP has not articulated how it plans to reach its staffing targets for trade positions over the long term, generally conducting its hiring on an ad hoc basis.

This is a public version of a sensitive but unclassified report that GAO issued in April 2017. Information that CBP deemed sensitive has been redacted.

Why GAO Did This Study

In fiscal year 2015, CBP processed more than $2.4 trillion in imports through more than 300 ports of entry, collecting around $46 billion in revenue. CBP facilitates legitimate trade coming into the United States and enforces U.S. trade laws. CBP is tasked with collecting revenue and identifying harmful and noncompliant imports, such as counterfeit goods and goods that evade duties.

In February 2016, Congress passed an Act that included a provision for GAO to review the effectiveness of CBP's trade enforcement activities. In this report, GAO examines (1) CBP's structure for carrying out trade enforcement , (2) how CBP conducts trade enforcement across its high-risk issue areas and ensures that its enforcement activities are effective, and (3) the extent to which CBP meets its staffing needs for trade enforcement. GAO reviewed agency documents, interviewed agency officials, and conducted field work at ports in Baltimore, Maryland; Los Angeles/Long Beach, California; and New York, New York. GAO selected ports to visit based on factors including volume of imports and number of trade enforcement units at each port.

What GAO Recommends

To strengthen its trade enforcement efforts, CBP should (1) include performance targets in its plans covering high-risk issue areas, and (2) develop a long-term hiring plan specific to trade positions that articulates how it will reach its staffing targets. CBP concurred with both recommendations.

For more information, contact Kimberly Gianopoulos at (202) 512-8612 or GianopoulosK@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: As of September 2017, CBP indicated that CBP's Office of Trade has been performing biweekly reviews of current performance measure results and had scheduled a management planning meeting to closeout FY 2017. CBP indicated that these efforts will help establish the performance target baselines for FY 2018. CBP indicated that it plans to establish the FY 2018 priorities and Priority Trade Issue strategic and annual plans, but as of September 2017 has not provided timeframes for project completion.

    Recommendation: To strengthen CBP's trade enforcement efforts, the Commissioner of CBP should direct the Office of Trade to include performance targets, when applicable, in addition to performance measures in its Priority Trade Issue strategic and annual plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: As of September 2017, CBP indicated that, in order to develop a long-term hiring plan, CBP's Office of Trade (OT), Office of Field Operations (OFO), and Human Resources Management (HRM) established a working group of key stakeholders to define the hiring challenges related to the trade positions. CBP identified the key stakeholders for the working group and was planning its first meeting for the working group. In the interim, CBP indicated that it was actively addressing trade hiring gaps through a variety of mechanisms that includes building recruiting partnerships with universities as well as closely tracking and monitoring the hiring of import specialists from initial announcement through entrance on duty.

    Recommendation: To strengthen CBP's trade enforcement efforts, the Commissioner of CBP should direct the Office of Trade and the Office of Field Operations to develop a long-term hiring plan that articulates how CBP will reach its staffing targets for trade positions set in the Homeland Security Act and the agency's resource optimization model.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Customs and Border Protection

 

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