If you travel to Canada this weekend you'll see them, perhaps even eye them with envy: motorists who get to pull into the near-empty lane...

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If you travel to Canada this weekend you’ll see them, perhaps even eye them with envy: motorists who get to pull into the near-empty lane for express check-in, blowing past the backup at the border.

This privilege comes courtesy of Nexus, a popular “trusted traveler” program run by Canadian and U.S. immigration agencies to expedite crossings for residents on both sides of the northern border who’ve been prescreened and deemed low-risk.

But for some of these travelers — Canadians and Americans alike — it appears the trust is gone.

Waves of inaugural Nexus users seeking to renew their cards have found their status unexpectedly changed. Many are coming face to face with the program’s zero-tolerance policy, in which long-forgotten infractions or even the actions of relatives and friends can exact a toll.

Take the Canadian who owns a home in Birch Bay, Whatcom County, but lost her Nexus privilege because her husband had been busted for marijuana in the 1980s — 10 years before the two knew one another.

Or the Blaine couple whose adult son from Canada had been on his way to visit them when border authorities found marijuana in his car. The couple’s Nexus membership was rejected when they tried to renew it.

And then there’s the 16-year-old son of a University of British Columbia professor denied renewal because, when asked if he had ever been arrested by police, the boy mentioned the time an officer simply asked him and his friends what they were doing.

“He didn’t even realize that’s not what arrested means,” his father said.

For a culture that hates waiting in line, the express lane at some of the border’s busiest stations has grown increasingly popular since it was launched six years ago.

Membership balloons

Membership has more than doubled in the last two years, and nearly half the 190,400 members are from the Pacific Northwest region, where the program first began.

They are British Columbia residents with jobs in the U.S. or a Nordstrom credit card, Americans with family and friends on the other side of the border who cross several times a week or sometimes daily. Increasingly, many are folks who live in Seattle.

Nexus members get to bypass backups that on holiday weekends like Memorial Day can stretch a mile or longer.

Over the next several weeks, motorists may notice even longer lines as some regular lanes are closed at times to accommodate construction of a new port facility at the Peace Arch.

“If you are a daily crosser, you depend on that card to avoid what could sometimes be a three-hour wait,” said Chief Tom Schreiber, Blaine-based spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “If you lose the privilege, it’s an issue.”

And as the five-year inaugural cards began coming up for renewal last year, many people found they had lost the privilege. Blaine attorney Len Saunders said he started seeing “literally a client a day” who had been rejected.

Before that, most revocations were for gross violations — drugs or “someone who had a trunkload of clothes from Nordstrom they didn’t declare” to Customs authorities, he said.

“Now they are yanking cards from little old ladies because of the actions of their adult sons,” he said. “People are being found guilty by association. The whole fairness of the system is in jeopardy.”

Border officials say Nexus is a privilege and members can be kicked out for any of a number of violations, even for the actions of those they are linked to by, say, an address.

Rigorous screening

They must be citizens and legal residents of the U.S. or Canada, pay $50 for the cards and pass rigorous prescreening by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Canada Border Services Agency.

“By putting people in this lane, we’re saying we don’t need to concentrate a lot of resources on them,” said Mike Milne, spokesman for Customs and Border Protection. “It frees us up to focus on these others we know nothing about.”

But, he said, “If you’re linked to criminal activity — now or in the past — whether it’s through an address, a vehicle, a business, it may be in our best interest to put you in a regular lane so you can undergo regular scrutiny.”

Nexus is linked to the individual — not the vehicle — and only those with a membership are allowed in the special lane. Electronic readers scan cards in the vehicle as it approaches the officer’s booth, displaying photos and other information.

Members are required to make Customs declarations for items they bring into each country; border officials make random selections for secondary screening to make sure they do.

And, oh, the things they find: guns, drugs, immigrants hiding in trunks: “We’ve had smuggling organizations enroll people with no criminal record and caught them transporting aliens and narcotics into the country,” Milne said.

Statistics show that while the number of revocations and denials has risen slightly over time, they appear to be in line with the increase in overall applications.

In 2006, security clearances for the program were centralized in Williston, Vt., and final decisions about Nexus membership were taken out of the hands of local border officials and standardized.

The centralized program has access to more criminal and other information, which might help explain some of the revocations and denials, Milne said.

Attorneys and their clients say loss of local control has made it more difficult to successfully appeal negative decisions. In January, the Vermont office added an ombudsman to consider appeals.

Local help

But attorney Saunders said he still goes through local officials, who may then recommend to the ombudsman that a card be renewed. It worked for the Blaine couple whose son was caught at the border with marijuana.

After a year without Nexus, the husband said, “You appreciate the value of having it.”

Others haven’t been so lucky.

In addition to rejecting his son, Nexus also turned down the B.C. professor’s renewal application last summer, citing a Customs violation. For weeks he tried unsuccessfully to learn what the violation was, but the “only thing I could think of was the apple.”

A U.S. citizen who asked that his name not be used for fear of retribution, the professor recalled an incident years ago under the program’s forerunner, PACE, which the U.S. discontinued after the Sept. 11 attacks.

He said a friend he’d given a ride to forgot his bagged lunch, with an apple in it, in the professor’s car.

U.S. border officials discovered it, warned him about restrictions on produce, and “that was that.” In 2002 they issued him a Nexus card with no problem.

He believes the incident has come back to haunt him: “The whole irony is that it was a Washington apple.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com