Congressto examine efficiency of passport rule

Published on Thu, Oct 19, 2006 by eg Olson

Read More News

Congress to examine efficiency of passport rule

By Meg Olson

The NEXUS program is celebrating the 100,000 participant milestone but new applicants are still waiting as long as they did during the stampede to get the first cards in 2002.

“Any slowdown is a shortage of staff in that office,” said Customs and Border Protection (CBP) public information officer Willie Hicks.
According to Hicks, applicants to the pre-clearance commuter lane program are waiting an average of three to four months for a decision on their eligibility.

“When we’re fully staffed with three to four we can do 2,200 a month,” Hicks said, “but on average with one U.S. and one Canadian officer it’s 1,100 a month.”

When the program started in June 2002 Immigration and Naturalization Service Seattle district chief of inspections Ron Hays said the office had 15 officers and support staff processing approximately 1,750 applications in a week.

Hit with approximately 30,000 applications in the first three weeks after enrollment opened, the agency was anticipating four to six month waits for the applications being submitted at that time.

Two years later, assistant port director Jerry Jensen said the program had close to 50,000 members and was adding 575 new members each month, with processing time running from two to four weeks and less than one percent of applicants being rejected.

Hugh Conroy, project manager with the Whatcom Council of Government, an agency that used federal grant funds to promote NEXUS participation until last year, said the current processing delay could deter new applicants.

“My inclination is it needs to be put in terms of other services people are used to accessing – like a driver’s license,” he said. “It needs to happen in a period of expected travel planning and three to four months would give people pause.”

Conroy added he was surprised at the current long waits for cards. “Three to four months is way up,” he said. “They had gotten to the point where they were willing to take walk-ins.”

A further drag on the NEXUS enrollment system will come next summer, when the original glut of 30,000 cards issued in the first few months of enrollment come due for renewal – a NEXUS card is valid for five years.

“It’s going to be a very real challenge for them when they get into re-enrollment,” Conroy said, adding he had heard of proposals ranging from a temporary off-site re-enrollment office to extending the expiry dates of the original cards.

Hicks said local authorities had a plan to address both the sluggish processing of new applications and re-enrollments, but that without approval of the plan by national CBP headquarters he was not able to discuss the plan.

“The Seattle district office has submitted an issue paper on NEXUS to headquarters,” Hicks said, but several months after the submission he was not aware of the status of the plan’s review. “It basically outlines our plan on how to deal with NEXUS and they determine if it’s a good plan and allocate resources as they see fit.”

Today, Hicks said, efforts are made to clear some of the NEXUS backlog by moving personnel from primary inspection lanes, but that comes at the cost of slowing down the regular flow of traffic.

As far as renewals, he said no decision had been made regarding procedure but that was also addressed in the issue paper now under review. A long-term solution for both new enrollment and renewals will require more personnel from both sides of the border to staff the joint U.S. Canada program, Hicks concluded.

“There have been negotiations but no agreement has been reached between CBP and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA),” Hicks said. “We have a plan and are concerned about it. We have to get the resources here to get the job done.” CBSA representative Paula Shore said the initial processing of applications by her agency, before they are sent to the U.S. enrollment office, is “still in the three to six week range.”

Shore added that resources allocated to the program are adjusted periodically.

“It’s reviewed on a monthly basis,” she said.

Congressman Rick Larsen (D), an early supporter of the NEXUS system, said it was critical to support the commuter lane program.

Larsen added that with new documentary requirements under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) planned for implementation in 2009, keeping NEXUS will be essential for swift northern border travel.

“This program has increased the efficiency of our cross border travel and commerce while maintaining a high level of security,” he said. ”We must properly fund NEXUS to make sure the program is able to grow.”

Hicks said that part of the agency’s plan, being developed jointly with Canada, would be to make NEXUS cards valid at air and land ports, and to consider accepting NEXUS cards as secure identification at the border under WHTI.