Canadians travelling to U.S. during shutdown could face big delays

Tourists drive past signs placed by staff at the entrance gate to the Joshua Tree National Park after the federal government’s partial shutdown caused park rangers to stay home and campgrounds to be shut, at the park in California on January 3, 2019. US President Donald Trump warned the US federal government may not fully reopen any time soon, as he stood firm on his demand for billions of dollars in funding for a border wall with Mexico. (Photo from Mark Ralston/AFP)

A new ailment has struck TSA staff at airports in the U.S. this week.

Some are calling it the ‘blue flu,’ some are calling it the ‘sickout,’ and while not everyone can agree on a name for it, travellers impacted by it have consistently reported major headaches.

The phenomenon of border security agents calling in sick to protest the U.S. federal government shutdown is only one of a few hitches Canadians planning travel in the U.S. should know about right now.

The partial shutdown began on Dec. 22 as U.S. President Donald Trump dug his heels in to a demand — rejected by the Democrats — for $5 billion in government funding for a Mexico-U.S. border wall.

As it stretches into its third week, the shutdown continues to impact more than 800,000 federal workers in nine departments. Hundreds of thousands are working without pay, while others have been placed on temporary leave.

Here are some of the ways America’s federal meltdown could affect Canadians heading stateside.

Airport headaches for travellers

Airports on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border have reported delays this week as TSA agents fed up by working without pay have opted to stay home from work.

Forbes reported on Jan. 7 that passengers at New York’s LaGuardia Airport were facing 90-minute wait times and that TSA pre-check, which expedites pre-cleared passengers through security, was closed in one terminal.

Passengers have also reported long, slow-moving lines at Seattle Tacoma Airport, JFK Airport, Salt Lake City International Airport.

While the TSA admits sick calls have increased since the shutdown began on Dec. 22, it claims the ‘sickout’ won’t affect security or service levels.

“Security effectiveness will not be compromised and performance standards will not change,” the TSA said on Twitter on Jan. 4. “TSA is grateful to the agents who show up to work, remain focused on the mission and respectful to the traveling public as they continue the important work necessary to secure the nation’s transportation systems.”

Nonetheless, Joel Sandaluk, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer, urges travellers to give themselves extra time at the border as the shutdown stretches on.

“What is happening anecdotally is that things are generally slowing down,” he said, pointing out that Air Canada and Pearson International Airport are advising travellers to arrive at the airport three hours prior to a flight, rather than the usual hour and a half.

“What we’ve been advising our clients is to allow for extra time for processing and admission. Line ups just seem to be longer and they seem to be moving more slowly.”

Tourism and attractions

Anyone hoping to visit a national park this month may want to wait until the shutdown ends, since the workforce of America’s 59 national parks has diminished to 3,000 employees from 19,000.

That means there are fewer people, if any, to answer the queries of hikers and campers looking for important safety or weather information about parks, and fewer rangers around if something goes awry inside a park.

During previous government shutdowns, including one in 2013 under President Barack Obama and one in 1995 under President Bill Clinton, parks were closed to visitors in order to protect both the visitors and the parks.

At least three people died in national parks during the first week of the current shutdown. A 14-year-old girl died on Christmas Eve after falling 700 feet down a canyon in Arizona’s Glen Canyon National Park. The next day, a man died after he fell into a river in California’s Yosemite National Park and suffered a head injury. And on Dec. 29, a 42-year-old woman was killed when strong winds knocked a tree down in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

While parks remain open, national sites including all 19 Smithsonian museums, the US National Zoo and the National Art Gallery have been shuddered by the shutdown.

Nexus applications and travel permits 

While less of a concern for the average recreational traveller, Sandaluk warned that Nexus card applications are currently subject to significant delays.

“This is probably the wrong time to send away for an application to a Nexus pass,” he said. “There are a couple of pretty meaningful delays.”

Nexus is a voluntary pre-clearance program designed to speed up border crossings for low-risk, pre-approved travellers into Canada and the U.S. The processing time for an application, not including a final interview with U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, is typically 30 days. But with CBP employees affected by the shutdown, Sandaluk said those interviews have ground to a halt. 

“Those workers are not working at present, so those applications are delayed,” Sandaluk said.

He also warned that the processing of work permits has slowed down in recent weeks, although it’s not clear whether the delay is caused by the volume of applications or recent issues with agent staffing.

As of Jan. 7, the current shutdown is the third longest in U.S. history, and Trump has been quoted saying he is prepared to let the shutdown drag on for “months or even years.”

While he later stated he doesn’t believe it will last that long, travellers should arm themselves with the latest information about delays and closures.

What do you think? Does the shutdown have you rethinking your travel plans? Let us know by answering the poll above, or have your say in the comments.