Another Canadian province will soon boast smoother border crossings, and a unified system for Canadian-U.S. commuters is one step closer, as the NEXUS program continues to grow — this time in Quebec.
NEXUS, a fast-clearance crossing program operated jointly by the Canada Customs and Revenue Agency (CCRA), Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) and the United States Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), has operated in two provinces and three states for the past eighteen months. An earlier pilot site at the Blue Water Bridge between Port Huron, Mich., and Point Edward/Sarnia, Ont., has been operational since the summer of 2001. New crossings between St.-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., and Champlain, N.Y., and between Saint-Armand/Philipsburg, Que., and Highgate Springs, Vt., will be open this month, marking the first time the program has come to Quebec or Vermont.
NEXUS allows regular border-crossers express entry through customs checkpoints on both sides of the border via special lanes designated for card-holders only. The program costs $80 (US$50) for a five-year membership. Admission to the program requires screening by both Canadian and U.S. authorities, as well as an in-person interview.
“Once the client is really deemed by both countries to be low-risk then the client is invited to an appointment for an interview. If the interview goes well, then a card is printed out right there on the spot,” said Dominique McNeely of the CCRA. Fingerprints are also taken as part of the biometric screening process sometimes used at secondary border checkpoints.
At the moment, the card works somewhat differently on different sides of the border. The cards themselves, manufactured by Intermec, contain RF transmitters which, in the U.S., broadcast to proximity sensors as the cardholder’s vehicle approaches a checkpoint.
“The antenna captures the particular signal unique to that card, sends a search into the (NEXUS enrollment) database, and on a very nice color screen in the inspection booth is displayed a digital photo of the person and various biographical data on them, citizenship, name, documents that are needed, etc.,” said George St. Clair of the CBP.
From that point, the U.S. inspector will make a visual identification between the driver and the cardholder’s picture on the screen, ask if the individual has anything to declare, and release him or her. Should a further identification be required, the driver will be sent to secondary screening for a fingerprint ID check.
Individuals entering Canada may not yet take advantage of the card’s radio technology, and instead simply hand their card to an inspector as one might normally hand over a passport . However, the time saved for NEXUS cardholders is not so much in the actual interview process, but in their ability to utilize special NEXUS lanes which have far shorter lineups than the regular lanes.
St. Clair noted that while border wait times are different at different crossings, the time saved by using a NEXUS lane can be significant depending on where you are.
“Waits (at the Peace Arch) in the summertime can average two hours or more. We timed cars — cars at the end of the line at 2:00 p.m. on a Wednesday were waiting an hour and 45 minutes. Cars in the NEXUS lane were waiting 15 seconds.”
Construction of special approach lanes at sites such as the Peace Arch (between Blaine, Wash., and Douglas, B.C.) has further aided NEXUS commuters in staying out of checkpoint gridlock.
At present, the NEXUS system is not nationally integrated in the United States, and each checkpoint draws on its own NEXUS member database for that specific site. In 2004, however, both the U.S. and Canada plan to launch national enrollment databases which will allow NEXUS members to cross with ease at any NEXUS lane, whether they signed up in Detroit, Mich., or Fort Erie, Ont.
“[NEXUS] was designed originally as a commuter system. As a commuter lane we figured everyone was local. We’re realizing now they’re not, and we’re making amends,” said St. Clair.
On the Canadian side, plans to roll out a national NEXUS enrollment database will be paired with existing license plate photography technology. And at Niagara Falls, NEXUS commuters can look forward to a bridge all their own when the Whirlpool Bridge reopens as NEXUS-only in March of 2004.
Though clearly a convenience for regular commuters, the true benefits of the NEXUS program lie in national security.
“The whole basis of this is that we can spend more energy and effort on those clients that are unknown or higher-risk,” said McNeely.
Though the program predates Sept. 11, much of its funding has come from allocations made as part of the Smart Border Accord in the wake of the terrorist attacks. The program is expected to become self-funding and recoup initial federal investments.
“This program is…actually more beneficial to us (than the consumer),” said St. Clair. “The main reason is we get to look at people ahead of time.”