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Longer waits, other issues cited as concerns by lawyers as U.S. looks to transfer border agents south

Last Updated May 18, 2019 at 7:22 pm PST

(Tom Walsh, CityNews Vancouver)

Border wait times may get even longer when U.S. temporarily transfers hundreds of border agents to southern crossings

Fewer officers at the border will mean fewer agents to process travellers

Some immigration lawyers wonder why more Canadians aren't taking advantage of how easy it is to get a NEXUS card

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Waiting for hours at the border isn’t anything new over long weekends, but as the U.S. plans to temporarily transfer agents to its southern crossings with Mexico, some experts say the situation could get much worse for travellers headed stateside.

Immigration lawyer Len Saunders, who practices out of Blaine, Washington, says this weekend is just the beginning of a long summer of border waits.

“Not only for this long weekend but for the Canada Day long weekend, the B.C. Day long weekend, the Labour Day long weekend — you’re definitely going to see long wait times with this new transfer of officers,” he tells NEWS 1130.

Fewer officers at the border will mean fewer agents to process travellers, and while the challenges may be more practical in nature, Vancouver immigration lawyer Alex Stojicevic notes there are some other particular legal challenges for certain groups of people.

“We depend on that border for many ways that the public is perhaps not entirely aware of,” Stojicevic says. “For example, if someone is applying to get a waiver because they’re inadmissible to the United States, that process is largely initiated by going to a U.S. border agent.”

Saunders echoes this concern when it comes to possible staffing shortages.

“Many Canadians can go to local ports of entry to apply for various work visas,” he explains. “I wouldn’t doubt if the officers say ‘look, we’re understaffed, come back on a weekday or come back during these certain hours.’ Right now, they’re open 24 hours at most ports of entry for applications for work permits, so my feeling is, definitely, they’re going to try to streamline when people are coming in.”

Many people in Canada also use land border crossings to process applications, conduct interviews for NEXUS, or flagpoling. Flagpoling is described by Stojicevic as the process of leaving Canada and re-entering the country in order to apply for something like a work permit. This process is also used by many as a way to “get landed” to become a permanent resident.

“When they get their immigrant visa if they’re already here, they have to leave the country and come back. That’s the fastest way you can activate your permanent residency if you don’t want to wait for an interview to be set for you by immigration,” Stojicevic says.

“If there’s fewer officers to do that, it’s going to be harder for Canadians who depend on those U.S. border agents to cooperate with Canada to actually get those documents they need for the reasons that I outline,” Stojicevic, who is the managing partner at MKS Immigration Lawyers in Vancouver, adds. “One, it’s not really their core activity, necessarily, and two, if there’s fewer of these officers available, they’re not going to be as willing, perhaps, to do all those extra things.”

The U.S. is looking to temporarily send hundreds of its border agents south amid an influx of asylum seekers from Central America. Saunders says the government is asking for volunteer officers to be transferred on rotations. However, he points out if there aren’t any or enough volunteers, agents will be forced to take on these rotations.

When it comes to people planning trips into the U.S., Saunders believes the timing of this new policy couldn’t be worse, as we kick off the road trip season into this summer.

“This is a busy season, it’s not like it’s the middle of winter when there’s less people travelling. Almost every day is a busy day, especially on a holiday weekend like this weekend,” he adds.

Both lawyers, however, note there hasn’t been any evidence in the past of an increase in border agents turning traveller away during staffing challenges.

“Any time that they’ve had issues at that border in terms of staffing levels, there hasn’t been any increase in refusals,” Stojicevic says. “I think it’s all just going to take longer, I don’t think it’s going to mean that fewer people are let in. I suppose that’s possible, depending on the mix they have in a particular region, but it’s not like the policies around this have changed or the laws have changed.”

Meantime, Stojicevic also questions how a reduced number of agents at crossings with Canada will impact cooperation between Canadian and U.S. border agencies on things like smuggling or other investigations.

“What kind of resources are going to be left if all of these officers are going to be pulled away from various duties? There’s a whole pile of concerns, I think, that will play into having the border not staffed adequately,” Stojicevic says.

Plans to transfer border agents has worried a number of businesses and communities in the U.S. that rely on cross-border commerce, who fear Canadian customers could be caught in backups at crossings.

Lawyers wonder why more Canadians don’t apply for NEXUS

Meantime, both lawyers wonder why more Canadians aren’t taking advantage of how easy and relatively affordable getting a NEXUS card can be.

“Quite often you’ll find — especially at the Blaine port of entry — they’ll have 10 lanes and maybe five of them will be solely dedicated to NEXUS on a busy day,” Saunders explains.

He says many people cite cost as a reason for not wanting to go through with the process. It costs $50 and is valid for five years, Saunders notes.

“It takes a couple of months for it to be processed, but it’s literally a 20 minute interview. It’s convenient, you can either go to Vancouver [International] Airport or on Main Street in Vancouver on in Blaine, to have your interview. I encourage people to get it — Americans want more Canadians to get NEXUS.”

He says many people do have NEXUS cards, but adds there’s a misconception that it’s harder to obtain one than it really is.

“Sometimes people are concerned about being fingerprinted or more of an in-depth search of their background, but if you’re going over the border, at any point they can take you in anyway and finger print you,” Saunders adds.

Stojicevic agrees, and says while many Canadians do have NEXUS, the number remains small.

You can apply for NEXUS by mail or online, and Stojicevic notes the price has dropped since it was first introduced.

“I think there’s a certain kind of Canadian who’s daunted by the idea of paperwork of any kind,” he explains. “I encourage people to actually look at how easy it is.”

While he says there also seems to be a certain reluctance among Canadians to provide personal information to U.S. authorities, Stojicevic says “you’re not giving up much that is not already available to American law enforcement if they really want to search” because of agreements on information sharing between the two governments.

-With files from The Associated Press