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Frustration mounts for families waiting for child Nexus cards as wait times soar to 24 months

Families say they are waiting up to 24 months to receive a Nexus card for their baby, despite multiple federal government initiatives to reduce the application backlog.

Some parents have faced years-long wait, despite lack of interview, biometric processing for child applicants

A smiling woman sits in her car with her children in the backseat in front of the Peace Arch at the Peace Arch Border Crossing.

Annie Jensen's two-year-old son Louis has been on a wait-list for almost his entire life. The toddler's application for a Nexus card has been pending for nearly 24 months, double the amount of time the federal government says applicants should be waiting.

Jensen is a dual citizen of the United States and Canada and frequently makes the trek from Vancouver to Blaine, Wash., to visit her parents. Her family has long taken advantage of the Nexus trusted-traveller program — which allows pre-approved travellers to pass through separate, faster lines when travelling to and from the United States.

But since submitting her son's application in July 2021, her family has been unable to skip the sometimes hours-long lineup at the border. For nearly two years, his application has remained "pending," and she's received no update on its status despite multiple attempts to contact the office responsible by phone.

"I don't know why it's taking so long to process. Children's applications should be simple — especially when the parents have been vetted," said Jensen.

"What possibly could he have on his history that would be a concern?"

Jensen's family isn't alone. Dozens of families expressed their frustration with the process on social media, citing wait times of up to 24 months for young children.

A family of six smiles for the camera, including two young children, two parents and two grandparents sitting on a park bench by a large body of water.

The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) didn't respond to a CBC News question about how many child applications are currently pending but said some applications "may take up to 12-14 months to complete."

The agency said in a statement shared with CBC News that "when processing applications for children, both CBSA and U.S. CBP complete checks during the interview process to verify that there is nothing to prevent the child from moving between borders (i.e. birth certificate, custody agreements) as part of our due diligence."

Backlog not cleared

To acquire a Nexus card, applicants must be risk-assessed by both the CBSA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, pass an interview, be photographed and provide some biometric data.

Registration for the program was put on hold in Canada for nearly a year after Nexus enrolment centres locked their doors in the United States due in part to a clash over U.S. agents' right to carry guns on Canadian soil.

That pause, coupled with office closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, caused the backlog of applications to swell to 295,133 as of May 2022, prompting the federal government to reopen two Nexus offices and promise a new interview option to clear the backlog.

But a year later, little progress seems to have been made, with the CBSA putting the number of unprocessed applications at 276,725 in May of 2023.

In a letter provided to one family waiting to be approved, a federal worker writing on behalf of Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino wrote that "when the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) receives applications for assessment, they are not categorized by the age of the applicant, nor is the Agency able to group applications to have them risk-assessed as a family."

'Let's get the ball rolling'

While Jensen, her partner and her oldest child do have active Nexus cards, they can't cross as a family without one for their toddler. Jensen said the situation has led her family to take drastic measures to avoid sitting in the car for hours at the border with two young children.

"My husband sometimes will bike down with my son so that they can bypass the traffic and go through the bike lane because it's always a bit faster. If there's a lineup, my daughter and I will go through the Nexus lane together," she said.

"It just really feels like an unnecessary burden, given that we all have Nexus. He's a two-year-old. He doesn't have a criminal history, so let's get the ball rolling on it."

A Nexus application that says, Applications in Progress and, Pending Review.

Tammy Yasrobi, who lives in Vancouver and also frequently visits family south of the border, described the current application system as a "black box pending state" with little transparency provided to those waiting.

When her first daughter was born, her Nexus card was processed within just 13 weeks. But her second child's application has been pending for six months with no update.

"I'd like to see more transparency around what the expectation is for wait time. I think that's a very low barrier thing they could do," she said.

"Ideally, in the future, someone looks at this program and determines whether it makes sense for babies to go through the Nexus process."

Yasrobi points out that young children applying for Nexus can't be interviewed or fulfil the biometric aspect of the application, as they cannot provide fingerprints or get their retina scanned.

"The concept of an interview for an infant is hilarious. You've interviewed me. You've interviewed my partner. We've cleared the process, So, what is it you're learning about a baby that requires this extended wait time?" she said.

Jensen said the long wait time has put a strain on her ability to visit her parents just over the border, especially after long pandemic years of separation — and urges the federal government to quickly clear the backlog of child applications clogging up the system.

"We're so close to our family, and it just feels like they're still too far out of reach.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michelle Ghoussoub is a reporter and anchor for CBC News based in Vancouver. She has received a nomination for the Canadian Screen Award for Best Local Reporter. She can be reached at michelle.ghoussoub@cbc.ca.

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