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U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers inspect vehicles entering the United States from Mexico at the San Ysidro boarding crossing in San Ysidro, Calif., on March 1, 2013. (MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS)
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officers inspect vehicles entering the United States from Mexico at the San Ysidro boarding crossing in San Ysidro, Calif., on March 1, 2013. (MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS)

North American trusted-traveller plan set to be unveiled in Mexico Add to ...

North American leaders are set to announce plans for a continent-wide trusted-traveller program during this week’s “Three Amigos” summit, a top Mexican official says, as Canada faces growing calls to drop a contentious visa requirement for Mexican travellers.

Sergio Alcocer, Mexico’s undersecretary for North America, told The Globe and Mail that he expects the new Nexus-style initiative to be addressed during this week’s meetings. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is scheduled to hold talks with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on Tuesday in Mexico City, and then the two leaders will be joined by U.S. President Barack Obama in Toluca on Wednesday.

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The push to ease travel among the three countries comes amid questions about the strength of Canada’s relationship with its North American neighbours. One month after Mr. Harper travelled to Israel with a delegation of more than 200 executives and community and religious leaders, he is facing criticism at home for playing down the coming trip to Mexico, which is one of Canada’s largest trading partners. Relations with the United States have also grown strained over Mr. Obama’s delays in deciding whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

A senior government source in Canada, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mr. Harper is not expected to lift the visa requirement for Mexicans during next week’s meetings. However, the official noted that other measures are being considered that could ease the visa application process for “legitimate travellers” to Canada.

The visa requirement was imposed in 2009 in a bid to reduce the flow of illegitimate refugee claimants from Mexico. But legislation has since been passed that makes it more difficult for Mexicans to claim asylum in Canada, prompting renewed calls for the visa requirement to be eliminated. Analysts say the issue has become a significant irritant to Mexican-Canadian relations, particularly after a similar requirement was lifted for the Czech Republic.

Trusted-traveller programs such as Nexus allow pre-approved, low-risk individuals to bypass normal security lines and move more easily across borders. Mr. Alcocer said bringing in a continental program should be relatively easy because existing programs already have similar requirements. “It’s quite simple, and it really will help to streamline the process to avoid going into long lines,” he said.

Mexico’s ambassador to Canada, Francisco Suarez, told The Globe on Sunday that a North America-wide trusted-traveller program would be a good “practical step” toward addressing concerns about visas – but added that it would not on its own solve the larger problem.

Canadian business leaders, including the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE), have advocated in the past for an expanded version of Nexus, which allows faster border crossings for prescreened travellers between Canada and the U.S., saying it would help facilitate links between Mexico and Canada. A similar program exists between Mexico and the U.S., but there is no overarching agreement that covers movement among all three countries.

Ross Laver, the council’s vice-president for policy and communications, said combining existing programs, “would go a considerable way toward alleviating the problems currently being experienced by Mexicans who wish to travel to Canada for business.”

A senior U.S. government official told reporters during a background briefing last week that the trusted-traveller program is expected to come up during this week’s trilateral meetings, but declined to comment on whether an agreement had been reached.

Mr. Alcocer said he expects this week’s discussions to cover a wider range of issues than they have in the past because all three leaders are looking to launch a more forward-looking agenda for making North America competitive and dynamic.

“That, of course, is the underpinning for a series of announcements that will be made,” he said. “One of them will be the trusted-traveller program.”

Canadian business leaders have also called for the visa requirement to be lifted altogether, saying it hurts tourism to Canada and makes things more difficult for companies that do business with Mexico. A recent report by the CCCE found that Mexican tourists spent $365-million in Canada in 2008, and less than $200-million in 2012, three years after the visa requirement was imposed.

Mr. Suarez said the Mexican government has done what it can to try to persuade Canada to remove the visa restrictions. “We’ve done everything positively and constructively, and the ball is on the other side, in Canada,” he said.

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