US-Canada couple denied border exemption; business leaders urge reciprocity

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

River Rouge — Karissa Baker saw it before she heard it: her boyfriend Jacob Temple was denied passage Monday morning into Detroit from Windsor.

Temple, 29, attempted to invoke a medical exemption when trying to cross the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel from Windsor to Detroit.

Jacob Temple, left and Karissa Baker, live just miles apart, but on opposite sides of the Detroit River.

Temple doesn't need a doctor himself, but wanted to be with Baker, 30, on Tuesday when she undergoes testing in Brighton to get answers on the gastrointestinal issues that have bothered her for the past two years.

Baker watched on her iPhone as her boyfriend's location showed, briefly, that he crossed from Windsor to America. For 40 minutes, she watched the dot sit at the customs station and not move.

When the dot finally did move, it was headed in the wrong direction, back to Canada.

"People say 'you know what you signed up for,'" Baker said. "But the border has never been closed like this. We didn't sign up for a long-distance relationship."

While vaccinated Americans will once again be permitted to cross into Canada for non-essential travel Aug. 9, non-essential travel from Canada to the U.S. remains banned through at least Aug. 21. American officials have given no word on when that ban will be lifted.

U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, said Monday that she's working with the advocacy group Let Us Reunite on a congressional letter to President Joe Biden urging him to "right this wrong" and allow for medically necessary travel and for family reunifications.

"At bare minimum, the U.S.-Canada land border must be open to vaccinated individuals or those with a recent negative COVID-19 test for family reunification and medically necessary travel," Tlaib said in a Monday statement. "The current situation, in which people like Karissa and her family (Temple) remain separated, is too painful.

"The goal certainly is to get us to a place where vaccinated and COVID-19 negative individuals can cross the border with relative normalcy," Tlaib added. "That determination must be made by public health experts."

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has said restrictions on non-essential travel at land and ferry crossings with Canada and Mexico were being extended to decrease spread of the virus, including the Delta variant. Essential travel, including the return of American citizens, has always been allowed.

"DHS is in constant contact with Canadian and Mexican counterparts to identify the conditions under which restrictions may be eased safely and sustainably," the department said in a statement last week. 

When his travels began Monday morning, Temple put himself at "50-50" odds of a successful crossing. 

He called ahead the day prior and explained his situation. He brought along a note from Baker's doctor, about why she'd need his help getting home after her appointment, during which she'd be sedated.

None of it mattered, he said. The answer was no. Temple was turned around and sent back to Windsor. 

"We're vaccinated, we wear masks, we've done our part," Temple said. "But they'd rather me fly in a plane with people than drive across in a car, by myself."

While the U.S. land border is closed to Canada except for "essential" travel, and some other exemptions, including medical, plane travel has been allowed throughout the pandemic.

Kris Grogan, spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said the lack of a familial tie is likely why such a trip would be considered non-essential, and outside of the exemption.

"It'd be different if they were married," Grogan said. "If you were to bring that same situation to the Canadian border right now, they'd turn you right around."

The strict stance is necessary, Grogan contends. 

"As soon as you open Pandora's Box, people will skirt the system," Grogan said. "You can't make exceptions for everything."

Devon Weber, founder of Let Us Reunite, a group that seeks "parity" between American and Canadian border policies, said she's seen a lot of stories like Baker and Temple's.

"It's a two-tiered system, based on who can pay to fly and who can't pay," Weber argued.

Added Tlaib: "We cannot keep the U.S.-Canada land border closed especially while allowing air travel. It’s classism plain and simple, and it needs to be corrected urgently."

Herman Dhade, a West Bloomfield-based immigration attorney, practices law on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. He recommends that clients who want to cross the border take an airplane.

"It's a little bit hit-and-miss at the border," Dhade said. "Humanitarian reasons, compassionate reasons, it doesn't sway them. They're incredibly strict. There is no exemption for a Canadian citizen with a sick girlfriend."

Weber, of Let Us Reunite, said she's heard from Canadians denied entry to their own medical appointments in America.

"What are the determining factors in deciding what's medically necessary?" Weber said. "We've asked for months. We either get no answer or they say they're 'following the science.'"

The Detroit Regional Chamber issued a joint statement on Monday with the Windsor-Essex Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Canada-U.S. Business Association, lamenting the "uncertainty and frustration" of the 16 month border closure.

The three groups issued a "call on the United States government to reciprocate the actions of the Canadian government and ease border restrictions." 

"Our respective nations’ social and business fabric are inextricably intertwined — especially in the automotive, mobility, technology and health care sectors," the joint statement read. "Safely easing border restrictions will aid North American competitiveness in the global marketplace as well as the economic well-being of individuals and businesses in both Canada and the United States."

So close, yet so far

Temple said when he and Baker met on Tinder four years ago, they were essentially locals to one another, about 20 miles apart.

Those 20 miles included an international border, but that didn't matter as much then.

Legal issues keep Baker from crossing into Canada, but before COVID-19 closed both borders, Temple would come visit her in River Rouge once a week, sometimes twice.

The plan, eventually, is for Baker and her son Ethan, 4, to move to Canada, the couple said. 

On New Year's Day, Baker and Temple found a spot where they could see each other across the Detroit River. They brought binoculars and waved and carried signs about how they missed each other. 

But being that close to one another only underscored how far apart they were. Baker calls the experience "bittersweet." 

"It was almost a mistake doing that, because the reality hit home," Temple said.