NEXUS opens to enrollment jam

Published on Thu, Jun 27, 2002 by Meg Olson

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NEXUS opens to enrollment jam

By Meg Olson

The NEXUS program officially lifted off this week, but more like an overloaded Airbus than the Concorde. Burdened with 30,000 applications only three weeks after enrollment opened, the system is more swamped than streamlined and agencies from both sides of the border are trying to sort out the kinks in a system they rushed to get up and running by summer.

Nevertheless, on Wednesday U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Commissioner James Ziglar, the agency’s top-dog from Washington D.C, opened NEXUS lanes to the first 100 participants enrolled earlier in the week. “We’re here today to disprove a myth that you can’t have security and a rapid flow across the border,” he exulted. “The future of our two nations depends on it. We must continue to facilitate the flow of goods and people because you cannot afford security if you don’t have a vibrant economy to support it.”

Ziglar was joined at the June 26 ribbon cutting at Pacific Highway by beaming dignitaries from both sides of the border and a crowd of federal employees and media representatives. Representatives from the four agencies collaborating on the new high-tech commuter lane program, immigration and customs from the U.S. and Canada, thanked staff for their efforts, agency heads for extra resources and the community for patience in getting the program up and running quickly. “It may not seem quick to all in the community but both sides really turned on to get the work done,” said U.S. Customs director of field operations for the northwest Tom Hardy. ”What we have here is the beginning of something and there’s more to come.” Barbara Fulton, assistant commissioner for Canada Customs, said plans were to expand NEXUS technology to speed up commercial traffic.

Asked if systems to expedite travelers might compromise national security, Ziglar said they might instead enhance it. “The vast majority of travelers are low-risk people. This will allow us to focus more attention and resources on people who we don’t know, who may be a high risk,” he said.

A demonstration followed of a car going through the new NEXUS lane, triggering a record of the driver on the inspector’s screen with a radio-tagged identification card. It took three tries to get the system to work, as the volunteer driver apparently had a radio card that had not been activated. Eventually she used someone else’s card and, though it was a man with a mustache who came up on the screen instead of the young woman in the van, the system worked as expected. “It’s a training issue we’re resolving,” said Stacey Day, NEXUS technical coordinator. “This is a brand new process and it’s not unknown to forget a step or two.”

Seattle district INS chief of inspections Ron Hays said processing at the U.S. enrollment center was “getting better as we speak.” They had received approximately 2,000 applications that have cleared initial Canadian review by June 25. So far 116 have received their NEXUS cards, two have been denied and 187 more have interviews scheduled.
“We’re calling people now but as the volume goes up we’ll start sending letters,” Hays said. So far, 78 percent of NEXUS members are Canadian.

Hays said he expects to be able to process 250 applications a day or more as the 15 support staff that do initial processing, first trained at the end of last week, get more experienced with the enrollment software.
Over at the Canadian processing center which first receives the applications, Canada Customs chief of client services for Pacific Highway Glenn Bonnett is facing a much bigger pile of paper and is less willing to commit to estimates of processing time. “I’d be reluctant to say with the stack as high as it is,” he said. “We’ve been working out the kinks and haven’t had the luxury of a regular flow, so it’s hard to know how long each one is taking.” Bonnett said their goal was to keep up with however many applications the U.S. side could process in a day.

The Canadian processing center has two fax machines that never stop. “We use a toner cartridge every day,” Bonnett said. They get over 1,000 applications in the mail every day. On Monday this week, they were starting to process applications they had received on June 11.

Glitches in the system are leaving some of the earlier applicants behind. Of the six The Northern Light employees and their immediate families who all applied to the program within 48 hours of enrollment forms being available June 4, two have been called to set up interview times. In both of those cases one member of a family whose applications were submitted together has apparently gone astray although payment for the application fees has been taken, indicating preliminary processing on the Canadian side was completed. In the case of another employee, the application appears to have gone missing before that stage.

Hays said missing applications on the U.S. side were likely to turn up as more applications arrived from the Canadian side.

“Things are bound to fall through the cracks with this kind of volume,” Bonnett said. However, he advised applicants to be patient. A person who applies today is under 25,000 other applicants. “I would advise people to not get concerned unless it’s been at least three months. Then send us another application with a cover letter,” Bonnett said. “If we can establish it’s our mistake we’ll do what we can to rectify that.”

Once applicants make it through the paper maze and are called in for an interview, national INS chief of inspections Tom Campbell said the wait would be almost over. “We have ten terminals and we figure a person coming in and getting processed to take an average of 20 minutes,” he said. Some applicants have reported over an hour to be processed, but most said they were in and out of the processing center in about 20 minutes per family member, even with some glitches to resolve.

Hays said families who applied together should come in for an interview together, even if one member had not been notified.

Approved program participants are fingerprinted and photographed and leave with a card that’s ready to get them through the Peace Arch or Pacific Highway lane, now open limited hours. They also leave armed with a guide outlining what is and is not allowed in NEXUS lanes. While the rules are less restrictive about what goods allowed in the lane, they are harsher about the penalties. “The policy is zero tolerance,” Fulton said.
People who break NEXUS rules will have their program privileges revoked, but can reapply in 90 days. “If the infraction was minor, they could probably be readmitted but if it wasn’t, if it involved a seizure, they could never get back in.” People in NEXUS will be sent to secondary inspection more often. ‘If people want to keep the lane they’ll keep their noses clean,” Day said.

As NEXUS enrollments are processed, lanes will be open longer hours and a lane in Point Roberts is expected in mid-July. “The more people enrolled the better; the more NEXUS lanes we can open and the more traffic will move quickly,” Ziglar said. “We obviously have a backlog now but as it levels out we hope it will only take three or four weeks to sign people up.”

Campbell said he was glad to see the high enrollment response. “We really want to see that lane populated,” he said. “It’s good for the travelling public and it’s good for us.” Three weeks into the enrollment process, the northwest NEXUS program has more applicants that any dedicated commuter lane in the country..

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