U.S. will open land border with Canada, Mexico to vaccinated foreign travelers in early November

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The United States will open its land borders with Canada and Mexico to fully vaccinated foreign travelers in early November, in conjunction with its planned change in rules for welcoming vaccinated international air travelers, federal officials said. 

The policy change, announced Wednesday by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, will mean reopening the Michigan border with Canada for the first time since March 2020 to those people traveling to the U.S. for non-essential reasons, such as to see friends and family or as tourists.

The revised policy comes after months of pressure from lawmakers, local officials and separated families on both sides of the border left frustrated by the seemingly never-ending border closure. Canada reopened its border to vaccinated U.S. travelers over two months ago.

"Strong vaccination rates in Canada made the continued border shutdown absurd and unjustifiable," said U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democrat and co-chair of the Northern Border Caucus, in welcoming the news.

“For months now we’ve heard from businesses that are suffering and families distraught over the separation imposed by the continued border shutdown. The sigh of relief coming from Northern Border communities following this announcement is so loud it can practically be heard on either end of the Peace Bridge."

The change will take effect at a date to be determined in early November, at the same time the Biden administration begins allowing vaccinated foreign air travelers back into the country.

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Holland Republican who co-chairs the Canada-United States Inter-Parliamentary Group, said the announcement was a step in the right direction but "it is not enough, and more needs to be done to ease travel."

“For over a year and a half, northern border communities and Canadian-American families have had to live with overly burdensome restrictions that divided them because of the Biden administration’s inability to stem the tide of people illegally entering the United States along our Southern border," Huizenga said in a statement.

He wants the administration to consider proof of a negative PCR test and those with natural immunity to be allowed to enter the United States next month, as well. 

"Both of these common sense measures would be an improvement over the free-for-all currently happening along our southern border on Joe Biden’s watch," Huizenga said.

Unlike air travel, there will be no COVID-19 testing requirement for foreign nationals at the land and ferry ports of entry, where Customs and Border Protection agents will oversee enforcement of the vaccination requirement, a senior administration official said. 

Traffic is backed up on the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, Friday, August 6, 2021.

That will include seeking attestations of vaccination status and spot-checking travelers for verification of vaccination status, either by paper documentation or digital means.

A CBP officer will question non-essential travelers about their vaccination status and, based on the officer's discretion, some travelers will be sent to a second officer to have their documents checked, the administration official said.

The exact paperwork or digital proof of vaccination that will be required is still being worked out in conjunction with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is expected to issue guidance to that effect in the coming weeks, officials said. 

The CDC let airlines know last week that all of the Food and Drug Administration- and World Health Organization-authorized and approved vaccines would be accepted to meet the vaccination requirement for air travel. The agency hasn't weighed in on land-border travel yet, but federal officials anticipate that the same guidance will apply.

The CDC is also expected to weigh in on whether Canadians who received doses of two different vaccines will be considered fully vaccinated for the purposes of crossing the border.

“I’m pleased that President Biden has put forward a public plan that will safely reopen northern land ports of entry to vaccinated travelers,” said Sen. Gary Peters, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“There is no question travel restrictions at our Northern Border have caused significant disruptions and challenges for Michigan’s cross-border communities and binational families.”

In announcing the changes, senior Biden administration officials indicated a desire to have a consistent approach to land and air entry into the U.S.

They also stressed the growing number of vaccinated people — nearly 263 million across the U.S., Canada and Mexico — with vaccination coverage continuing to increase in all three countries.

"We understand how valuable across border travel, travel from Canada and Mexico is to the economic activity in border communities and to our broader economy, and we also know how meaningful the ability to travel is to maintaining the personal touch ties between people living on either side of the northern and southern U.S. borders, who are often effectively members of one community," a senior administration official told reporters on a call.

"We are pleased to be able to move forward with these strict protocols to ensure cross-border travel can occur in a safe and sustainable manner."

Starting in January, the vaccine requirement will also apply to both essential and non-essential travelers entering the U.S., meaning truck drivers, health care workers, studentsand others who currently may cross the border for business, trade and other essential purposes must also have proof of vaccination against COVID-19.

The administration officials noted that crossing the border illegally between ports of entry will still be subject to expulsion. Title 42 public health policy has been used to expel thousands of migrants without allowing them to apply for asylum in the U.S.

A different policy applies to people who have a lawful right to enter the U.S. and will be passing quickly through the port of entry, officials noted.

The U.S. land border with Canada has been restricted to all but essential travel since March 2020 — restrictions renewed just last month through Oct. 21.

Administration officials said those restrictions will be extended again beyond Oct. 21 through whatever November date is set for the new air and land travel rules for vaccinated foreign travelers to take effect.

Beyond that date, the prohibitions will only apply to unvaccinated foreign travelers traveling to the United States for non-essential reasons.

The land border restrictions with Canada and Mexico were initially imposed to reduce the spread of COVID-19. They have been renewed month by month, causing hardship and strain for separated families and friends, cross-border property owners and businesses in border communities. 

After Canada reopened its border to vaccinated U.S. travelers on Aug. 9, the U.S. did not reciprocate, the source of much criticism on both sides of the border. Canadians who want to enter the U.S. for non-essential travel such as tourism may do so only by flying in.

Mayorkas said last month that the delta variant had delayed U.S. plans to reopen the border to Canadians, suggesting it would only happen when public health data showed it was safe to do so. 

For some months, Canada has been ahead of the U.S. in vaccinations, with 76% of its population fully vaccinated and 87% of those 12 and older. That's compared with 66% of the U.S. population that's fully vaccinated and 77% of those 12 and older, according to the CDC. 

mburke@detroitnews.com