Canada says U.S. holding NEXUS travel program ‘hostage’

Out with the old irritants, in with the new ones in Canada-U.S. relations.

A disagreement has surfaced in a moment of relative calm in cross-border affairs, with a trade disagreement now resolved and pandemic travel rules eased

This new dispute has been quietly simmering for months and boiled over on a public stage Thursday.

It involves dysfunction in a Canada-U.S. program for pre-screened trusted travellers, who can cross the border more quickly with what’s known as a NEXUS card.

The U.S. has shuttered offices in Canada that process applications for these cards while it presses for changes to the program.

A Canadian official made clear her country’s displeasure in an unusually curt assessment before a high-level audience in Washington.

“I’m going to be super undiplomatic and blunt here because I think this is important for friends sometimes,” said Kirsten Hillman, Canada’s ambassador to the U.S.

“The [NEXUS] program is being held hostage.… It’s disappointing and it’s frustrating for us.”

She aired those feelings in the presence of numerous government and industry officials at a conference hosted at the Canadian embassy and organized by the Future Borders Coalition. The commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Chris Magnus, was seated in the front row, metres away. 

The U.S. wants its employees in NEXUS offices to have immunity from prosecution in Canada, like diplomats, and like customs agents, seen here, who work in Canadian airports. (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)

The closure of facilities stems from a disagreement about immunity from prosecution — not unlike the protections for diplomats

The U.S. government contends that its employees in NEXUS offices deserve similar immunity from Canadian prosecution while doing their job in Canada. 

These protections already exist for U.S. border agents at Canadian airports working in customs pre-clearance sites; in the U.S. view, some of these NEXUS offices are co-located in the same facility and it makes no sense for different rules to apply in different parts of the office.

U.S. view: Canada has had years to make this change

The U.S. says it’s repeatedly informed Canada for several years that this was a priority. And there’s apparently been little progress.

“This is not new news,” a U.S. embassy spokesperson in Ottawa said Thursday. 

“The United States stands ready to reopen NEXUS centres in Canada once Canada addresses these concerns.”

Both countries closed their processing centres during the pandemic. This spring, the offices in the U.S. reopened; but the ones in Canada stayed closed because the Americans refused to staff them.

The head of a Canada-U.S. business group says it’s not the Americans holding the program hostage. 

Maryscott Greenwood said Canada has known for years that this is a non-negotiable condition for the U.S. to maintain the program; she said American officials even made clear, when offices were shut during the pandemic, that they wouldn’t reopen again unless they gained legal protections for their officers. 

She said Canada has dragged its feet on addressing the issue and could easily have introduced a regulation extending the airport pre-clearance rules to NEXUS. 

“Canada kept saying, ‘Soon, soon, soon,'” said Greenwood, a Washington-based lobbyist and head of the Canadian American Business Council. 

“The real question is, ‘Does Canada want the NEXUS program or not?’ “

She said that if Canada doesn’t want NEXUS anymore the U.S. has a worldwide trusted-traveller program, Global Entry. But the disadvantage there is Global Entry is a unilateral U.S. program and doesn’t allow speedy re-entry into Canada. 

Hillman said Canada is willing to find a solution. But she said it’s a complicated issue and may not even be possible under Canadian law.

It’s the U.S. hardball approach she said she resents.

“What I do question are the tactics, to be honest with you: I feel the tactics are heavy-handed and not indicative of the relationship we have,” Hillman said. 

In an interview later with CBC News she added: “It’s not how friends do business. It’s unacceptable. We’re increasingly frustrated. I think it’s important to say so.” 

WATCH | Sources previously blamed NEXUS delays on gun disagreement:

Nexus delays due to disagreement over U.S. agents carrying guns in Canada: source

A federal government source says Nexus card backlogs are a result of U.S. agents wanting to carry guns while on duty in Canadian centres, with Ottawa reportedly saying Nexus centres on this side of the border will remain closed until the dispute between the two countries can be resolved.

Could online interviews solve impasse?   

There’s now a backlog of more than 334,000 people awaiting NEXUS cards and Hillman said it’s getting worse every day.

She disputed news reports that indicated that the core irritant involves whether U.S. officials can carry guns on Canadian soil. 

Hillman told CBC News that’s not the issue: “They’re not asking for the right to carry firearms. They’re not.” She said the issue is Americans wanting immunity from prosecution for acts committed by Americans while working in a Canadian-based office.

She said it’s complicated and these offices are not like airport pre-clearance facilities, because some are located within Canadian cities.

She said she’s discussed the issue with the head of the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, and he’s committed to the NEXUS program.

A Canada Border Services Agency officer speaks with a traveller at the Nexus office at the airport in Ottawa in this 2012 photo. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

A predecessor to Mayorkas who held the role in the Trump administration said the issue had already started bubbling up when he was in office.

Kevin McAleenan said he didn’t want to comment much and deferred to the current administration on the issue.

But the Trump-era head of the U.S. border-protection agency and interim head of the Department of Homeland Security suggested a longer-term solution: Move everything online.

“I would recommend that they look at remote solutions to bridge this gap,” McAleenan told CBC News. “We’ve done that in other contexts.”

Trump-era border official Kevin McAleenan says online sessions could solve the problem. He’s also a fan of the ArriveCan app. (Jose Cabezas/Reuters)

Trump official: I love ArriveCan

Speaking of moving processes online, McAleenan and several other speakers at the conference offered their opinions on the controversial ArriveCan app.

Several defended the much-criticized app and regretted that it was viewed by the public as a pandemic-related program.

One attendee described it as a way of digitizing the customs process and called it a step toward a long-term goal: eliminating physical customs kiosks from airports altogether, simplifying travel.

“I’m a fan of the ArriveCAN app,” McAleenan told one panel. 

“We don’t have that in the U.S. We should’ve had that before the pandemic.”

Speaking on the same panel, his former Canadian counterpart expressed regret about how the app was disparaged.

Use of ArriveCan is now optional, after a public backlash.

“It was a super-important opportunity for us and I’m disappointed about how a vocal minority gave it such a bad rap in a very short period of time,” said John Ossowski, the former president of the Canada Border Services Agency.

He said the program became a poster child for resistance against vaccine mandates, when it was really an attempt to build a next-generation customs system.

He also ridiculed reports that programmers had managed to replicate the $54 million app in two days: “Did you build in the AI tools?” Ossowski said. “Did you do 70 different versions of it? Did you get it approved in the App Store?” 

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