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Nexus trusted-traveller program coming back, as ‘Three Amigos’ meetings wrap

System dealing with a backlog of between 220,000 and 240,000 applications
United States President Joe Biden and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador listen to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speak during a joint news conference at the North American Leaders Summit Tuesday, January 10, 2023 in Mexico City, Mexico. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Justin Trudeau and Joe Biden tied up a pair of bilateral loose ends Tuesday: one for Canadians who frequently cross the Canada-U.S. border, the other for a certain U.S. president who has yet to do so.

The Nexus trusted-traveller program, on ice in Canada for nearly a year due to an outstanding dispute over U.S. border agents on foreign soil, is ramping back up, albeit in an altered and somewhat less convenient form.

The new program, jointly run by the Canada Border Services Agency and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, will be up and running by the spring, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a joint statement.

That option “will include CBSA interviews at reopened enrolment centres in Canada and separate CBP interviews in Canadian airport preclearance locations for departing applicants,” the statement said.

Mendicino later said that the changes, which also include a faster renewals process and expanded Nexus staffing levels on the U.S. side, would increase the system’s ability to process Nexus applications by 50 per cent.

“The demand is there because people see this as a way to accelerate their travel in a flexible, seamless and efficient way,” he said. “That’s precisely what the vision of this program is, so this is truly a win-win.”

The system is currently dealing with a backlog of between 220,000 and 240,000 applications, he added.

Scotty Greenwood, CEO of the Canadian American Business Council, said the new arrangement echoes a proposal her group floated in November aimed at getting around intractable questions about Canadian sovereignty.

“The breakthrough will allow the resumption and enhancement of one of the most successful trusted-traveller programs in the world,” Greenwood said in a statement.

“The new agreement reaffirms that Canada and the U.S. are well suited to confront the world’s challenges together.”

The agreement will allow Canada’s Nexus enrolment centres to reopen, with interviews with U.S. border agents taking place at Canadian airport facilities that already provide preclearance services for travellers heading stateside.

Nexus applicants, who must be interviewed by both Canadian and U.S. authorities, would sit down with Customs and Border Protection officials for that portion of the process before travelling to the U.S., provided they are travelling imminently and leaving from an airport where customs preclearance is an option.

International airports in Canada that offer preclearance services include those in Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa and Winnipeg, as well as Pearson International Airport in Toronto.

Word of the arrangement crystallized as Trudeau, Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador wrapped up the formal portion of their North American Leaders’ Summit Tuesday at the National Palace in Mexico City.

The meeting touched on crucial trilateral issues including collective support for Ukraine in its war with Russia, the best way forward on gang-ravaged Haiti and the ever-present tide of irregular migration across the U.S.-Mexico border.

But as symbolic shows of bilateral unity go, few can compete with a formal presidential visit, which Biden will finally make in March, the Prime Minister’s Office confirmed.

Canada also announced Tuesday it would purchase a U.S.-made surface-to-air missile system to help Ukraine in its yearlong effort to fend off Russia’s ongoing invasion. Defence Minister Anita Anand said the system, valued at about $406 million, comes from the additional $500 million in military aid to Ukraine that Trudeau announced in November.

And while the U.S. continued to press Canada to take a leadership role in helping to quell rampant gangs and lawlessness in Haiti, Trudeau stopped short of making any firm commitments.

“We need to continue to be there for the people of Haiti — but we need to make sure that the solutions are driven by the people of Haiti themselves,” he said.

Canada has been focused on imposing sanctions on the “elites” that Trudeau blamed for the violence and political instability — “a handful of small, extraordinarily wealthy families in Haiti have been causing much of the strife because of political and pecuniary interests.”

There’s more to do, Trudeau added, but he wouldn’t say whether that would involve the federal government green-lighting some sort of security force in the country, as the U.S. has been encouraging Canada in particular to take on.

“We’re going to make sure that what we do this time allows for the Haitian people to get the situation under control. And a big part of that is putting those sanctions on the Haitian leadership that is responsible for so much of the misery.”

The three-way news conference, staged inside the palace’s towering courtyard, dragged on for nearly two hours — thanks in large measure to the famously long-winded López Obrador’s 30-minute answer to a question from the Mexican media.

Biden and Trudeau, who flanked their host and counterpart, did their best to keep their facial expressions as diplomatic as possible as AMLO, as he’s known, held court before an increasingly befuddled audience of government officials, emissaries and journalists.

Before the formalities at the National Palace, Biden and Trudeau sat down for a face-to-face meeting, briefly exchanging pleasantries and remarks for the gathered phalanx of cameras, which strained to hear the soft-spoken president.

The pair talked at the G20 meeting last year about the need for Canada and the U.S. to expand their partnership, Biden said.

“That’s something that we can do — I think your phrase was, ‘When we work together, we can achieve great things,’” he said. “What we should be doing, and we are doing, is demonstrating the unlimited economic potential that we have in North America.”

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday that the U.S. would be pressing Canada to take a more direct role in backstopping security forces in Haiti, a theme Biden was quick to mention as well.

“We’re going to discuss how we can try to help stabilize Haiti, how we can deal with migration and at the same time bolster our national security,” the president said.

Trudeau didn’t specifically mention Haiti before the bilateral meeting, but did make the point that North America’s economic potential is limitless if it functions as a unit.

“We have a tremendous amount to contribute to the world in goods and services, but also in technologies and solutions that the world really needs,” Trudeau said.

“Our capacity to work together has brought us to date some extraordinary success, but at a time of disruption around the world with very real challenges, we can and must be doing even more.”

It was the first formal bilateral for Biden and Trudeau — two-thirds of the so-called “Three Amigos” — since the Summit of the Americas in June.

Much like at last year’s gathering of hemispheric leaders, Biden’s agenda was dominated by the migratory crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, making his meeting with Trudeau the prime minister’s best chance to press issues of specific concern to Canada.

From a Canadian perspective, the summit’s overarching economic goal is to ensure Biden — a vocal and unapologetic champion of protectionist, pro-labour domestic policy — sees America’s neighbours as true partners and collaborators.

That was clear enough from the summit of business leaders from across the continent that got the Canadian portion of the proceedings started on Monday.

Biden was asked Tuesday to square the seemingly contradictory ideas of U.S. protectionism and broader continental economic co-operation with Canada and Mexico, but he never got the chance, thanks to López Obrador’s discursiveness.

“Just for the record,” Biden joked when it was finally over, “I don’t know which questions I didn’t answer.”

—James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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