Chief Customs Officer defends airport protocol

Chief Customs Officer, Vaetagaloa Glen Lefiti is defending the Customs Office practice of checking travel documents at the airport, in response to Governor Lolo’s letter regarding the review of travel documents of passengers entering the territory via Hawaiian Airlines, which the Governor called “sheer chaos that does not bode well for his administration”.


In his letter (obtained by Samoa News) to the Governor through his Director, Treasurer Falema’o Pili, Lefiti said recent articles in Samoa News (Governor’s Chaos letter/Customs Overtime) has caused confusion among the Customs Officers and it appears they have been victimized by a dire misunderstanding of their role at the border.


Lefiti said customs agencies throughout the world have a special nexus with the border for reasons given by the United States Supreme Court, to protect revenues, reduce expectations of privacy at the border, the right to possess imported merchandise until duty (excise tax) is paid and National Self-Protection (contraband, weapons and illegal drugs interdiction).


He noted that their mission statement has it that they are the “guardians of our Territory’s borders — American Samoa’s frontline!”


“We serve and protect the American Samoa public with integrity, innovation and pride. We enforce the laws of American Samoa; safeguard/collect the revenue and foster lawful international trade and travel,” he noted.


Lefiti explained that airport operations are in keeping with the above rationale and mission statement, while they continue to refine and streamline all the Customs procedures. Making the border crossing a dignified experience has always been Custom’s goal, he said, “however, we must take appropriate measures to ensure that we do not degrade our border protection posture.”


The Chief Customs Officer also stated that Hawaiian Airlines operations also cause delays in processing arriving passengers and they will address these issues with the new manager of the Airline. “Lack of space and current facilities do not support our operations (i.e it was designed 30 plus years ago, times have changed)” said Lefiti.


The Chief Customs Officer dispelled some “misunderstanding” about the process at the border in his letter.


“Why do we check passports? “First and foremost, the Customs passenger interview is done in accordance with ASCA (American Samoa Code Annotated) 27.1005(a).”


Lefiti said there are several reasons why inspection of travel documents is necessary. Again, he quoted ASCA 27.1005 (a) noting that a traveler’s passport is used as identification to ensure it is the traveler’s name and passport number on the customs declaration form.


Lefiti pointed out that the law states, in the arrival process, the Immigration Officer stamps the traveler’s Customs declaration after they check the travel documents and they do this to alert Customs that the traveler was processed by immigration. Immigration, however, does not check the information on the Customs declaration form.


In his letter, Lefiti said when arriving in Hawai’i for entry to the US, the traveler presents the Passport and US Customs Declaration to Customs officers, not Immigration officers, “just like when you arrive in American Samoa”.


“The United States Customs and Borders Protection Agency has taken over the immigration and quarantine roles at their borders,” said Lefiti. He noted the arrival process in the territory mirrors pre-US Homeland Security establishment, wherein Immigration and Customs belong to two separate departments.


“Perhaps you may consider adopting what the US has done to authorize local Customs this role — “one face” at the border – greater transparency,” said Lefiti.


He further stated that he has considered risk assessments and based his analysis on the following; “It is not likely that a passenger arriving in Honolulu from Pago is carrying contraband, commercial items or illegal drugs.


“This is my educated guess as to why US Customs and Border Protection is more passenger friendly” he wrote, noting “this is not the case when a flight comes in from the Philippines.”


“However, the potential of passengers bringing items of interest such as commercial items, tobacco, alcohol, firearms/ammunition and illegal drugs on Hawaiian Air flight from Honolulu to Pago is high — this is the reason we must be vigilant. The better we protect our borders the more revenue we collect!”


Lefiti also stated that Agriculture’s X-Ray machine is an inspection tool, which cannot distinguish items that are imported for commercial use or resale. He noted the previous administration required 100% screening of luggage, which did not make sense to Customs and they requested random selection of luggage to be screened given that it created a choke point at the Customs inspection area.


He further stated that enforcing the law especially with the border is extremely difficult. “O i ia matou e masae ai atopa’u onosa’i o pasese, o na I fo’i e iloa ai e faifeau palauvale”.


Lefiti told Samoa News via mobile phone, when passengers reach the Customs’ counter they are already tired and this is when they lose their patience, and even Reverends use profanity to the Customs officers. He noted that Customs Officers undergo ridicule and verbal abuse and other unwarranted gestures, while remaining consummate professionals, and they fully understand the importance of what they do, they are proud men and women.”


“My personal opinion, senior ASG officials should show restraint and common courtesy “fa’amolemole, mana’omia le uta male tofa, ma ia lava le onosa’i, fa’afetai.” (Please be patient and thank you). “Corrective criticism is always welcome, however, it is our goal to ensure that the Customs process is efficient, effective and transparent. Nobody is above the law,” said Lefiti.


As Samoa News reported earlier, the governor sent a letter last month to Attorney General Afoa L Su’esu’e Lutu, Department of Agriculture Acting Director Lealao M Purcell, Treasurer Falema’o Pili, and Port Director Taimalelagi Claire Tuia-Poumele to find ways to minimize the multiple reviews of their travel documents during immigration entry review and customs review. 


The governor noted that this chaos projects an image of disorganization and an inability to provide quality service; moreover it does not exude a welcoming spirit to visitors to the territory.


The Customs review causes substantial delay requiring passengers to go through three steps with their luggage prior to finally leaving the customs area noted the governor.


“There is no reason why Customs has to review travel documents other than the form provided to the passengers to be filled out on the plane. Moreover there has to be a more orderly and fair way to go through immigration and customs check points to preempt situations where arguments result because some people are aggressive, rude and disrespectful,” said the governor.

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