U.S./Canada deal could alleviate border traffic


By Steve Guntli

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Public Safety Canada have reached a new agreement that could reduce wait times at the border.

On March 16, DHS secretary Jeh Johnson and Canadian public safety minister Steven Blaney signed a preclearance agreement that will expedite land, rail and sea travel through the border.

The deal would allow U.S. and Canadian border agents to work in each other’s countries. This would allow agents to prescreen travelers at locations away from the border, easing congestion at crossings. Under the new arrangement, agents would also be able to carry firearms in the neighboring country.

The new arrangement is part of the U.S.-Canada Beyond the Border deal, signed by President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2011. Beyond the Border is intended to increase security on both sides of the border while making it easier for people and trade goods to pass between the countries.

“Today is a major achievement that will produce significant benefits for the United States and Canada,” Johnson said. “This agreement will help facilitate the legitimate trade and travel that keeps our economy thriving as we maintain utmost vigilance to the security of our borders.”

Preclearance measures are already in place in eight Canadian airports. Travelers can clear customs before they board a plane and skip the long checkpoints in U.S. airports.

Beyond the Border has been delayed by some legal and technical problems. In 2012 both countries missed a deadline for a legal agreement that would allow law enforcement agents to operate inside the neighboring countries.

Congresswoman Suzan DelBene, a representative for Washington’s first district, was present at the signing, and hailed the move as a big step forward.

“Reducing border wait times will encourage even more Canadians to cross into our great state, supporting our local economy,” she said. “This will be a big win for the first district going forward.”

DelBene discussed the preclearance issue during a recent visit to Whatcom County. On March 12, DelBene met with border experts from Washington and B.C. at a round-table discussion on border policy at Western Washington University (WWU). The discussion, hosted by WWU’s Border Policy Research Institute, focused on ways to make the border more efficient and reduce wait times, especially for those doing cross-border business. The discussion covered ideas ranging from preclearance to implementing a higher-level NEXUS card or visa for travelers who frequently cross the border for business purposes.

“The goal here is to make sure we have a strong economic border,” DelBene said. “I keep hearing, ‘How can we simplify or make things easier at the border? How can we streamline?’”

The countries still have a few hurdles to jump before the preclearance agreement signed on March 16 can be implemented. The impacts on the program’s budget have yet to be finalized, and participation with private companies that manage bus and train lines still needs to be negotiated. Additional legislation is also required on both sides of the border, which could be a lengthy process.

At present, no timeline is in place for when the new program will be implemented, but DHS representatives say they are hopeful the legislation will go before the current congress.

Additional reporting by Ian Ferguson.