U.S. Congress members ask Canada to save the NEXUS trusted traveller program
'For good reason, we're at wit's end,' New York Congressman Brian Higgins says
A bipartisan group of U.S. Congress members is trying to push past what it sees as Ottawa's reluctance to solve an ongoing dispute about the NEXUS trusted traveller program that eases the flow of people across the Canada-U.S. border.
New York Rep. Brian Higgins, Michigan Rep. Bill Huizenga, and Washington Reps. Rick Larsen and Suzan DelBene sent a letter to their Canadian counterparts on the Canada-U.S. Inter-Parliamentary Group Friday, asking for their "assistance navigating an issue of mutual concern: the NEXUS backlog and continued closure of Canadian service centres."
NEXUS centres south of the border reopened in April after a pandemic-related pause.
Canada, however, hasn't done the same with its enrolment centres because of concerns about extending legal protections to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers operating on Canadian soil — protections that those same officers already enjoy at pre-clearance sites at Canada's airports.
The federal government hasn't said when — if ever — these Canadian offices will be operational again.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said late last month he's "eager to get it rolling."
Canada's Ambassador to the U.S. Kristen Hillman has said the U.S. is holding the NEXUS program "hostage" by calling for legal immunity for officers working at a Canadian-based office.
U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Cohen, meanwhile, has said "it's Canada's problem to solve" and the U.S. is dead set against restoring the program without legal rights for its officers.
In the meantime, cross-border travellers are left waiting for a pass that can make the sometimes labyrinthine process of crossing the Canada-U.S. border a lot easier.
U.S. representatives are also exasperated.
"With appreciation for the implications, sensitivities and complex nature of these negotiations, and the sovereignty of both countries, we sincerely hope that our two nations, which share a history of policy collaboration for mutual benefit, are able to resolve outstanding questions expeditiously to reopen NEXUS enrolment centres in Canada," the representatives said Friday in their letter to Conservative Sen. Michael MacDonald and Liberal MP John McKay, the co-chairs of the inter-parliamentary group.
The NEXUS program is at a breaking point after years of pandemic-induced disruptions.
There is a backlog of well over 300,000 applications and an average processing time of 16 months.
It's also a problem that disproportionately affects Canada: 80 per cent of NEXUS members are from here.
Higgins, a Democrat who represents Buffalo and western New York in Congress, told CBC News he's beyond frustrated by the lack of a resolution to the standoff.
"For good reason, we're at wit's end. This is a problem that is pervasive and growing. It's a problem that should have been dealt with a long time ago," he said.
"It seems as if nobody's in charge, nobody is taking responsibility for this and that's why it's important to have congressional pressure and for members of Parliament to say 'Hey, let's resolve this.'"
"It works so well when it works so well. I don't think it's at risk of collapse but the problem is, something needs to be done. This is a binational issue that hurts both the U.S. and Canada."
Higgins said resuming NEXUS is a way to normalize the flow of goods and people between the two countries at a time when traffic is still well below pre-pandemic levels. In fact, it's only about 40 per cent of what it was before COVID-19 hit, he said.
"The greatest inducement to travel is ease of travel. Long wait times at the land ports of entry are just going to discourage people from making that cross-border trip," Higgins said.
Canada's stance 'puzzling'
Maryscott Greenwood, a Washington-based lobbyist and head of the Canadian American Business Council, said the NEXUS issue is a "major irritant. Democrats and Republicans are worried about it."
"NEXUS is actually hanging by a thread. Canada should be quite worried about the future of that program if it doesn't come up with a path forward," Greenwood told CBC News.
She said it's "puzzling" that Canada has been so reluctant to extend legal protections to U.S. CBP agents at NEXUS enrolment centres — privileges that these officials already enjoy at pre-clearance sites.
(Pre-clearance allows U.S.-bound passengers to clear U.S. customs in Canada before arriving at a U.S. airport or train station.)
"Why they've drawn that line in the sand is puzzling. I think it has something to do with domestic politics," Greenwood said.
CBC News has asked CBSA for a comment on this story but hasn't yet received a response.
Greenwood, who has launched a "Save NEXUS" campaign to try and resolve the impasse, has a potential solution: "decoupling" the current interview process.
As it stands, a U.S. CBP officer and a CBSA agent must be together in the same room at the same time for an in-person interview with a would-be NEXUS cardholder.
Under Greenwood's proposed plan, an applicant could interview in Canada with a CBSA official and then finish the process on their next trip to the U.S. in a separate interview with U.S. CBP.
That's the process for Global Entry, another U.S.-run trusted traveller program for non-Canadian nationals.
"The Canadians would operate in Canada, the Americans would operate in the U.S. and the program would continue. I think that's the solution and they should decide to do that right away and start chipping away at this backlog to get NEXUS going again," Greenwood said.