Localslice of NEXUS renewals getting smaller

Published on Thu, Oct 25, 2007 by eg Olson

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Local slice of NEXUS renewals getting smaller

By Meg Olson

Between local supervisors, district managers in Seattle and a Vermont ombudsman, anyone who has a legitimate beef with the NEXUS program should be able to get it fixed, according to the head of the nation’s traveler programs.

“We owe you a straight answer about what the rule is and it should be consistent,” said Customs and Border Protection (CBP) director of trusted traveler programs John Wagner.

Wagner shrugged off the report by The Northern Light that showed faltering local membership numbers over the summer as more memberships expired than were issued in August at the Blaine enrollment office. “We’re proud of the work we’ve done,” he said.

“We’re not kidding ourselves there’s still a lot we can do to make it more available to people.” Additional staffing and online enrollment is shortening the wait for new memberships as well as a glut of renewals, and he is confident membership will keep growing.

Nationally, Wagner said, the program has exploded as they’ve added seven airports and three land border crossings to the list of locations where NEXUS members can access expedited clearance. “In the last six months it’s a dramatically different picture,” he said. In January, 2,700 applications were received. In September, 13,000 applications were received, 2,500 of them renewals.

The local slice of the NEXUS pie is getting smaller. When the program began in 2002, all NEXUS members were enrolled locally, and local participants accounted for more than 60 percent of program participants in 2006.

Today they represent one third of NEXUS members, according to Wagner. However, he said some of the local users of the NEXUS lanes were enrolling or renewing at newer enrollment centers at the Vancouver airport and in Seattle.

The global enrollment system, which now completes background checks from a Vermont office, has increased efficiency and shortened wait times, but has led to a higher rate of membership denials – up to 11 percent in 2007 from 4 percent in 2002. Wagner thinks more denials is part of attracting applicants from a wider pool. “It’s always been a strict standard and it’s the same one we initially negotiated with Canada,” he said.

Rejected applicants should get a letter detailing why they were not admissible to the program, Wagner said, unless the information was protected for law enforcement reasons.

If the reason for rejection isn’t clear Wagner recommended rejected applicants approach a local CPB supervisor, district managers in Seattle, or write to the office of the ombudsman in Vermont. That position is currently vacant but Wagner said CBP employees were acting in that capacity. “They will look to see that we acted on accurate information. They will check to see we made the right decision,” he said. “We will always review a decision.”

Wagner said they are also always reviewing the standards of the program, which exclude not only those with criminal records but those who were issued a customs violation for crossing the border with a potted plant. What they want to improve is the clarity of those standards. “We’re trying to put really clear guidelines on the infraction,” he said, specifically relating to missteps at the border.

In regards to the zero-tolerance policy, Wagner said, “The officer has the discretion to make the determination did an infraction occur? There can be differences of degree and every case is different but the standard is did you commit a violation?An officer takes a lot of aggravating or mitigating factors into account,” he said.

Officers’ decisions are also subject to review by supervisors. “If someone lost their NEXUS card for having their child’s gym bag on the back seat, which could be seen as a violation in not being their “personal effects,” Wagner said “that person should be talking with a supervisor.”

Wagner said participants in programs he described as “personal convenience programs,” such as NEXUS and SENTRI at the southern border, were held to the strictest standards. The FAST program for cargo has more flexible standards for admitting drivers and allowing minor transgressions such as a misdemeanor offenses.
The looser standard made sense for FAST, Wagner said, because the cargo and warehouse of origin were also subject to additional requirements. In addition, for truck drivers FAST might be a condition of employment, where NEXUS participation for a traveler was their choice. “NEXUS is a convenience,” he said. “It’s not a commerce-based transaction.”

At the Whatcom Council of Governments, Hugh Conroy, who has studied and worked on marketing the NEXUS program since its inception, said there needs to be greater national recognition on the commerce-based realities of the border region. “Anything that’s going to facilitate travel supports the economy,” he said.