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Preclearing tourists and business travelers is good for America — why can’t it be staffed correctly?

If you’ve ever flown to Toronto, you may have noticed its tourist attractions, its patchwork of neighborhoods, its diversity. And when you flew home, you may have taken note of another thing: the fact that you cleared customs while you were still in Canada. 

Toronto’s Pearson airport is one of 15 international facilities that offers U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) preclearance, a program in which passengers are screened just before they board their planes. In 2019, 7 million tourists, business travelers and returning Americans were still physically in Toronto when they were legally deemed to have arrived in the United States. Around the world, in cities like Montreal, Abu Dhabi and Dublin, 22 million people got precleared to enter the U.S. this way. 

Preclearance benefits time-crunched passengers, but it helps America even more. It allows foreign travelers to be screened ahead of time, before they even enter U.S. airspace or airports. It allows airlines to transit these visitors through U.S. hub airports with shorter connection times, because they connect as domestic travelers. And it brings these travelers direct to more than 160 smaller U.S. airports that operate with limited or no CBP staff. 

This offered a huge boon for cities like Orlando, Miami, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, where thousands of Canadians and international travelers arrive each month with money to spend on hotels, food, entertainment and attractions, creating enormous economic benefits — or at least they did, until the COVID-19 pandemic. When air travel abruptly halted at the pandemic’s onset, airport operations around the world shut down. U.S. CBP reduced the number of officers stationed in Toronto. 

Today, the U.S. tourism industry is on the upswing again, with travel approaching pre-pandemic levels. But preclearance hasn’t geared up to match it. CBP’s budget appropriations haven’t been restored to their regular levels, which is affecting its ability to properly staff full hours of operation or overtime. 

That leaves preclearance operations struggling to handle post-pandemic passenger demand, much less future growth. 

At Toronto Pearson, wait times to pass through preclearance reportedly routinely exceed 60 minutes, and on some days last summer, that stretched to 90 minutes. Before the pandemic, wait times were routinely 15 to 30 minutes. Long lines affect the quality of passenger experience and makes it challenging for flights to depart at their scheduled time. This has led to Toronto Pearson capping capacity for U.S.-bound flights. 

What’s more, these staffing issues take place against the background of a dispute between the United States and Canada over the shutdown of enrollment for the bilateral NEXUS program. NEXUS is a Canada-U.S. trusted traveler program where citizens and permanent residents of both countries can become designated as low-risk entrants and gain expedited border clearance. NEXUS plays a key role in facilitating frequent Canadian travel to the same U.S. destinations that benefit from preclearance. But, according to industry sources, about 430,000 Canadians and Americans are currently languishing on a waitlist for enrollment because we have chosen not to send agents back to Canada to work on approvals. While both sides are now actively seeking a resolution, the interruption in service underscores the need for a modernized, efficient trusted traveler program. 

The holiday travel season is upon us, which means welcoming Canadians and other precleared travelers who want to visit the U.S. for vacations. With so many economic and security benefits at stake, we want to see these issues resolved as quickly as possible. Congress should help clear these lines and backlogs and facilitate the quick resumption of these valuable travelers to our country. 

First, it should weigh in with Customs and Border Protection. CBP should be urged to ensure that Toronto Pearson and other preclearance airports have enough temporary officers and overtime funding for the holiday travel season. This should address the excessive wait times. 

Second, Congress should provide sufficient appropriations in the 2023 budget for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to support preclearance operations to deliver the same level of service as they were before the pandemic. This shouldn’t be a huge ask, as the user fees collected by CBP — approximately $16 USD per passenger — more than pay for the preclearance operations they facilitate in Toronto. 

And finally, Congress should ask CBP to work with Canadian officials to create a modernized NEXUS trusted traveler program to help facilitate the flow of travelers between our two countries. 

Preclearance and NEXUS deliver clear benefits not just to Canada but also the United States. Screening millions of tourists and business travelers before they ever reach the border makes the U.S. more secure, more welcoming and more prosperous. That can’t be jeopardized just because they aren’t resourced correctly. 

Laura Dawson is the executive director of the U.S.-Canada Future Borders Coalition. 

Tags air travel Airport flights National security

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