U.S. move to extend Canada border restrictions through Aug. 21 draws ire

Alex Harring
The Detroit News

Canadian leaders were left “stunned” Wednesday by the U.S. decision to extend its border closure to “nonessential” Canadians until at least Aug. 21, despite plans by Ottawa to open its border to Americans 12 days earlier.

Some U.S. lawmakers are similarly unhappy with the announcement, with politicians from both sides of the aisle criticizing the move. Wednesday's announcement comes two days after Canada said it would allow vaccinated Americans to start crossing the border for nonessential travel beginning Aug. 9.

The border discrepancy risks exacerbating tensions between the economic allies — especially if extended by the Americans beyond Aug. 21. Cross-border trade and tourism are the lifeblood of the industrial heartland in both countries, making the border crossing between Detroit and Windsor one of the busiest in North America.

"For months now, people and businesses along the border have been strung along month after month holding out hope for the border to reopen," said U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democrat from Buffalo, N.Y. "Today’s decision by the Biden administration harms economic recovery and hurts families all across America’s northern border; this is completely unnecessary."

He's not alone. Sarnia, Ont., Mayor Mike Bradley said he and a group of border city leaders briefed on the situation earlier in the week "were stunned" to learn the Americans would not reciprocally reopen their side of the U.S.-Canada border. 

"When the border closed, it closed jointly," Bradley said. "And the expectation, at least in my view, was to reopen jointly. And I would say in Canada, the response to the discrepancy between the two governments and the border is not being well received."

But it's not necessarily completely unforeseen. In detailing plans to reopen the Canadian border to fully vaccinated nonessential U.S. travelers, the Toronto Star reported, "Canadian government ministers said they had been given no indication of a reciprocal move by their American counterparts."

Federal Register document published Wednesday from Customs and Border Protection announced the extension of the U.S. current policy through Aug. 21. The policy only allows for ground travel deemed essential from people looking to enter the U.S. from Canada.

The document, signed by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, pointed to a “specific threat to human life or national interests" with COVID-19 spread between the two countries. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, essential travel to the U.S. includes:

  • U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents returning to the United States
  • Medical travel
  • Those attending educational institutions
  • Work travel
  • Emergency response and public health travel
  • Lawful, cross-border trade
  • Official government or diplomatic travel
  • Members and family members of the U.S. Armed Forces returning to the U.S. and others partaking in military-related travel or operations.

Infections in the U.S. have been rising again, fueled by the delta variant, which is accounting for about 83% of new cases. Canada recently surpassed the U.S. in its vaccination rate despite a slow start in administering the COVID-19 shots.

“To decrease the spread of COVID-19, including the Delta variant, the United States is extending restrictions on non-essential travel at our land and ferry crossings with Canada and Mexico through August 21, while ensuring the continued flow of essential trade and travel," a DHS spokesperson said in a statement. "DHS is in constant contact with Canadian and Mexican counterparts to identify the conditions under which restrictions may be eased safely and sustainably.”

Wednesday's announcement comes days after Canada announced it would allow fully vaccinated Americans to start crossing the border for nonessential travel beginning Aug. 9. The 14-day quarantine currently imposed in the country will also be waived, though travelers seeking to enter Canada also would need to supply proof of negative PCR COVID test results no more than 72 hours before entering Canada.

Ground border entrances in Metro Detroit play a significant role in the region's economy and travel. Neal Belitsky, CEO of the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, told The Detroit News earlier this week that COVID-19 restrictions led traffic to decrease to about 3,000 vehicles per day from about 12,000 vehicles per day.

Michigan imports $45.2 billion from Canada and exports $22.7 billion in goods to Canada annually, according to Connect 2 Canada. Canadian travelers spent $355 million in Michigan in 2017.

The U.S. delay may be grounded in efforts to evaluate Homeland Security's ability to screen for immunization and testing in ground travel, said Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University. There's also continued touchiness around vaccine passports, which Trautman said add difficulty to creating a streamlined system.

Another hold-up on the American side: whether to require COVID vaccinations for all travelers seeking to enter the United States from Canada. Reuters reported that high-level meetings are scheduled for later this week to explore restrictions and whether U.S. border policy should mirror those of Canada, which require nonessential travelers to be fully vaccinated with government-approved vaccines and to show proof of a negative COVID test.

The continuously evolving pandemic and the spread of the virulent delta strain also cause worry when making federal policy changes, she added. It's further complicated by the fact that the U.S. has international borders with both Canada and Mexico, meaning that once one is open, the other should open.

"They're basically all or nothing, they are gone or they are there," Trautman said of restrictions. "Part of the problem ... is that there's still enough uncertainty about the delta variant and infection rates to just fully reopen the border."

There's also politics roiling on both sides of the border. Trautman said Canadian lawmakers may have felt a need to reopen before the upcoming federal election. And the transition between the Trump and Biden administrations also likely caused some policy delays.

Another justification for keeping the border closed is that air travel is still an option, though that is not as feasible for border cities like Detroit and Buffalo, Port Huron and Windsor.

Wednesday's announcement mainly impacts Canadians who have relatives on the other side of the border they would like to visit, said Sarnia's Bradley. Though not a surprising decision, he said much of the frustration among Canadians stems from the "fundamental unfairness" of the governments not reopening their borders at the same time.

"Keep in mind, we had a group of American politicians ... beating the drum that Canada needs to open its border and they need to do it now," he said. "So Canada has moved forward and done its part, and now it's not being reciprocated."

Some U.S. politicians call move 'unnecessary'

South of the border, the federal government's decision is leaving some lawmakers from both parties frustrated, especially those whose districts rely on the economic support of Canadian travelers.

With vaccination rates rising, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said in a statement that both countries should use a science-based approach to ensure the border can open quickly but safely.

U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain is a Republican whose district includes Port Huron, which borders Ontario across the St. Clair River. She sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Wednesday urging him to loosen restrictions.

“Canada is beginning to reopen cross-border travel to Americans, and there’s no reason why our country needs to continue to keep the border closed,” McClain said in a statement. “Our northern border has been closed for well over a year, separating families and hindering small businesses in our border communities from the economic recovery they need to survive.”

The decision to extend restrictions highlighted Biden's "inability to lead," said U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican who is co-chair of the Canada-United States Inter-Parliamentary Group. His wife is Canadian.

"Families in Michigan and across the nation have been separated from their loved ones in Canada for 17 months," Huizenga said in a statement. "President Biden’s inaction is also stifling the economic recovery of communities in Michigan, New York and states that share a border with Canada."

Twitter: @alex_harring