The federal government has reopened two NEXUS offices in Ontario in an attempt to address a backlog of thousands of applications to the travel program — but an extra step is being added to the application process.
The NEXUS program, which eases the flow of people across the Canada-U.S. border, stalled when offices on both sides of the border were closed because of the pandemic.
On Monday, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) announced that offices in Fort Erie and Lansdowne, Ont. have reopened for applicant interviews — but applicants will now be required to complete a secondary interview on the U.S. side of the border.
In the past, Canadian and American border agents jointly conducted interviews in the same room.
“We’re working hard to find creative solutions to reduce wait times, address the backlog and help more travellers get NEXUS cards,” Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said in the statement. “This new, two-step process is further proof of our commitment to it.”
The backlog sits at well over 300,000 applications with an average processing time of 16 months.
Dispute over legal protections
NEXUS centres in the U.S. reopened in April. But Canada didn’t follow suit over concerns about extending legal protections to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers operating on Canadian soil.
Washington has been calling for the extension of those legal protections to its officers working at NEXUS centres — protections that those same officers already enjoy at pre-clearance sites at Canada’s airports.
That dispute seems unresolved with this new two-step interview process, as CBSA officers will conduct the interviews in the Canadian offices and their U.S. counterparts will complete the secondary interviews on the U.S. side.
Maryscott Greenwood, a Washington-based lobbyist and head of the Canadian American Business Council, welcomed the decision.
“It’s not a perfect solution. A perfect solution would be reopening Canadian facilities staffed by both [Canadian and American] officers,” Greenwood said. “But since that appears not to be an option … this is the next best thing.”
A disproportionate amount — 80 per cent — of the 1.7 million people who use the program are Canadian.
But last month, a bipartisan group of U.S. Congress members sent a letter to their Canadian counterparts on the Canada-U.S. Inter-Parliamentary Group asking for their help in resolving the issue and reopening the Canadian offices.
One of the letter’s signatories, New York Rep. Brian Higgins, praised the reopening of the Canadian offices but suggested more could be done to facilitate NEXUS applications.
“Border management has gotten more complicated than it has to be,” Higgins said in a statement. “We need to find ways to break down the barriers at our border to better support the flow of people and goods between neighbours.”
Greenwood said she wishes the Canadian government would be more “ambitious” and reopen more offices with the two-step interview process.
“It’s a welcome development but I think it needs to go further, faster,” she said.
The CBSA statement says more NEXUS offices will be reopening at land borders, but didn’t say when.
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