What Is the U.S. Customs Service and How Long Has It Been Around?
The First Congress passed and President George Washington signed into law the Tariff Act of July 4, 1789 on July 31, 1789. This act authorized the collection of duties, or fees, on imported goods. (The act was proposed as a measure to raise money for the financially desperate young nation.) Points of entry were determined shortly after, and people -- citizens and visitors -- entering the U.S. began to be accountable for what they brought with them.
For more than a century, U.S. Customs supported virtually the entire government and its infrastructure, according to Customs Service historians. Customs revenues were used to build the City of Washington, D.C., many of the nation's lighthouses and the U.S. military and naval academies, and had, by 1835, reduced the national debt to zero.
The U.S. Customs Service, whose early activities were far-reaching and diverse, spawned other government agencies, including the Bureau of Census, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
In March of 2003, the U.S. Customs Service (along with employees from other organizations like the U.S. Border Patrol) became U.S. Customs and Border Protection, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security. Today the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is responsible for ensuring that all imports and exports are legal and comply with U.S. laws and regulations, and for collecting revenues associated with the enforcement of those laws. (Zachary Mann, a 13-year special agent and spokesman for the U.S. Customs Service, likes to describe the agency as the nation's "oldest law enforcement agency.") The agency also:
- Seizes contraband, including illegal drugs and narcotics, and arrests people engaged in smuggling or other fraudulent behavior with the intent to get around customs laws
- "Processes" people, luggage, cargo and mail
- Protects U.S. business and intellectual property rights by enforcing laws aimed at preventing illegal trade practices
- Protects the "general welfare and security" of the U.S. by enforcing import and export prohibitions and restrictions, including money laundering (more on that later!) and the export of data essential to the production of mass weapons of warfare
- Gathers import and export data for the purpose of compiling international trade statistics
- Enforces over 400 provisions of law -- many related to quality of life issues, such as pollution and health -- for approximately 40 other agencies
The Customs Service, which describes itself as "the primary enforcement agency protecting the Nation’s borders," has extensive air, land and marine resources -- including such state-of-the-art equipment as BlackHawk helicopters and Citation jets -- for enforcing laws, as well as its own intelligence branch. The Customs Service has an extensive canine corps for sniffing out drugs and other illegal substances. (Beagles, which are known for their sensitive sniffers, are especially popular for searching out agricultural products.)
Special agents in the Customs Service Office of Investigations deal with major criminal activities, including money laundering, drug smuggling, child pornography and what are known as "exodus cases." Exodus cases involve the export of arms, weapons systems and other technology that can be used militarily against the U.S., according to Mann.
Another major area of investigation is commercial fraud. For example, in North and South Carolina, special agents are investigating people who are bringing in textiles illegally from other parts of world in attempts to beat the U.S. visa quota system, Mann says. As an illustration, let's say that a foreign manufacturer of textiles in Asia has a bilateral textile agreement with China and the United States. This bilateral agreement is part of a quota visa program, which says textiles imported into the United States must have a visa against that quota. "Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous importers who purchase textiles from China, ship them to a third country and try to import them into the United States as products of that third country," Mann says. "This undermines the visa quota program and brings goods in that compete directly with our own textile capabilities. Millions and millions of dollars can be at stake here."
Similarly, commercial fraud is being conducted around the import of plain white T-shirts. (These are a hot commodity -- statistics say that the average American consumes 15 T-shirts a year from sporting events, concerts and work.) If T-shirt printers can get cheaper shirts brought in and evade duty rates, they can be more competitive.
The Customs Service, which relies increasingly on innovative enforcement and administrative technology, remains the second largest revenue source for the federal government (the Internal Revenue Service is number one), returning $22.1 billion to the U.S. Treasury in 1999 -- about $18 for every $1 the agency received in operational funds from the government, Mann says.
While the work of the U.S. Customs Service covers a broad range of import-export issues, let's look at specific customs issues that affect you when you travel.