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A car pulls up to the Nexus only Whirlpool bridge in Niagara Falls Ontario on Sept. 17, 2007.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Ottawa and Washington are at loggerheads over the popular Nexus trusted-travel program that allows citizens of both countries to cross the border more quickly, leaving several hundreds of thousands of Canadians waiting in the queue to get their applications approved.

At issue is a dispute over legal protections for U.S. Custom and Border Protection officers who work in Nexus offices in Canada. The U.S. wants the same protection for them as is guaranteed to its preclearance officers at Canadian land crossings and airports under a 2019 binational agreement. Nexus is a joint program and requires applicants to be interviewed by both Canadian and U.S. customs officers before approval is granted.

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino on Tuesday said Ottawa is standing firm that U.S. customs officers can’t have the same legal protection at Nexus enrolment centres as they do at Canadian preclearance halls.

“There is an importance principle of Canadian sovereignty around making sure the laws applies to officials as it would to any other person, foreign officials who are here to discharge an official function,” he said. “We want to be pragmatic but we want to adhere to important Canadian principles and one of them is that Canadian law applies on Canadian soil.”

He said Americans who work in preclearance areas enjoy legal protections because “travellers are moving immediately on to the United States as opposed to Nexus enrolment centres where they are away from official ports of entry.”

Mr. Mendicino and a U.S. embassy official in Ottawa dismissed as untrue reports that the dispute is over a request for American customs officers to carry guns at Canadian enrolment centres. Neither Canadian nor U.S. customs officers are permitted to carry guns in Nexus centres, which are located at or near airports but separate from customs clearances, he said. The Globe and Mail is not identifying the official because they were not authorized to be publicly identified.

The U.S. official said the issue is the absence of standard legal protections for official duties performed by CBP officers at trusted traveller enrolment centres in Canada. For example, American customs officers are allowed to be tried in American courts for most offences if they’re charged with an on-duty crime in Canada.

Canada and the U.S. remain in discussions about when the Canadian enrolment centres, which have been closed since March, 2020, will reopen for applicant interviews. The American offices just recently reopened, although there are reports people are having difficulty getting an appointment.

Mr. Mendicino said he discussed the possibility of virtual interviews with U.S. customs offices when he recently held talks with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. But the U.S. official at the embassy told The Globe that the virtual option is not practical and is unlikely to get off the ground.

Before the pandemic, the U.S. official said 60 per cent of Nexus processing were done in Canada and 80 per cent of the applications were from Canadians.

The official said Canadians will have to either travel to U.S. Nexus enrolment offices or to the U.S. border to be interviewed before they can obtain a Nexus card. Existing Nexus members, whose card is about to expire, can continue to use the travel document for another five years, provided they submit a renewal application online.

“Canada is doing everything it can to process those Nexus applications on our side, right up to the point where the Americans have to do their own screening prior to applications,” Mr. Mendicino said.

The minister was unable to provide a timeline on when the dispute might be resolved but he’s stressed the importance of the fast-track documents to the U.S. economy.

“The case we have made to our American friends is this is a significant economic driver. It contributes, when it is running at full capacity, to somewhere in the range of $8-billion to their economy.”