WASHINGTON – A bill to simplify crossing the Canadian-U.S. border moved ahead in the American Congress on Wednesday, with little time left to get it passed before lawmakers break to form a post-election legislature in the New Year.
It’s a long-awaited development.
The Harper and Trudeau governments both signed so-called preclearance deals with the Obama administration, but the arrangement required implementing legislation and U.S. lawmakers have not made it a priority.
The bill finally got some attention Wednesday evening. It sailed through the House of Representatives without objection. Lawmakers there urged the Senate to adopt it quickly, and make it law before breaking next week for the holidays.
Lawmakers from different parties and different parts of the U.S. spoke in favour of the bill, before moving it forward.
“(This) is great news for U.S.-Canadian relations,” said New York Republican Elise Stefanik.
“Canada is more than just a bordering nation. They are our neighbours, our friends and our largest trading partner. Plattsburgh, a city in my district, has even branded itself as Montreal’s U.S. suburb.”
The plan stems from the oft-stated goal of policy-makers to achieve two goals: Simplify movement to avoid the border snarls that have frustrated commerce and travellers since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, while also maintaining security.
It involves a pilot project to test a new way of crossing the border by getting people screened before the actual international boundary – better known as pre-clearance. Many Canadians are already familiar with the system because it exists at major airports, where they clear U.S. customs at home and avoid potentially longer lines after they land.
Now it could be extended to trains, buses and potentially someday even cars on highways. The first pilot projects will occur at train stations in Vancouver and Montreal. They would only begin once implementation bills become law in both countries.
The U.S. legislation makes clear American customs agents accused of committing crimes on the job would be prosecuted in U.S. courts. A Texas Democrat, Sheila Jackson Lee, said the bill offered multiple benefits – safer screening of visitors before they reach the U.S., cheaper processing costs and faster travel.
“That’s a very, very important aspect of this legislation,” she said of quicker travel.
The Canadian version has already been introduced and is expected to pass, given that both the current and previous majority governing parties, the Conservatives and Liberals, both supported the plan.
More recently, the Canadian government has lobbied to have pre-clearance adopted by the current Congress.
A Canadian-U.S. business group saluted Wednesday’s development.
“We are hopeful that this common-sense, bipartisan, bicameral effort will bear fruit before the end of this congressional session,” said Maryscott Greenwood of the Canadian American Business Council.
“It’s a long time coming, but well worth the effort in terms of efficiency along the most productive border crossing in the world.”