WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will virtually meet with officials in Mexico and Canada in his first trip “abroad” Friday, raising questions about when the three countries will lift restrictions on “non-essential” travel at the borders put in place nearly a year ago because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The nation’s top diplomat will meet with Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Marcelo Ebrard and Secretary of Economy Tatiana Clouthier behind the backdrop of Paso del Norte bridge – a crucial link between the downtowns of El Paso in Texas and Ciudad Juárez in Mexico.
Blinken will later meet Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Marc Garneau. President Joe Biden met virtually with Trudeau on Tuesday in his first bilateral meeting, but the two leaders made no mention of plans to restore cross-border operations.
The Department of Homeland Security announced last week that the United States, Canada and Mexico agreed to keep their land borders locked down through at least March 21, which marks the one-year anniversary of initial border closures over COVID-19.
The closures, which apply to all land and sea borders, have been extended every month since. Technically, Americans can still fly to either country, though Canada has made that option more difficult.
People traveling from the U.S. to Canada are required to prove they are traveling for essential reasons and must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Canada also requires a negative COVID-19 test for those traveling by plane.
The secretary of state’s first foreign trip is usually a symbolic jaunt marked by pomp and circumstance, but Blinken but rather than traveling abroad he’s meeting with foreign counterparts via video teleconference in Washington.
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The border restrictions have been devastating for binational communities, dividing families whose lives bridge an international border and hurting businesses dependent on the cross-border traffic.
The Trump administration billed the restrictions, which took effect at midnight March 21, 2020, as a ban on “non-essential” travel to prevent the spread of coronavirus. In practice, it effectively prevented Mexican nationals holding tourist visas from crossing.
In El Paso and Laredo, Texas; Las Cruces, New Mexico; Nogales, Arizona; and Calexico, California, the policy has left shops empty of the Mexican customers who often buy wholesale to sell in retail shops back home. The effects ripple out to communities beyond the border that have historic ties to Mexico, from Phoenix to Albuquerque and Dallas.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki hinted during Thursday’s news briefing that the administration may reveal more plans on reopening the borders.
“I do expect there will be more on this soon,” she said.
Families have been divided, too, as relatives without U.S. citizenship in cities from Tijuana to Mexicali, Juárez to Nuevo Laredo, are unable to come north.
“People have their grandmothers on the other side of the border, their brothers and sisters and best friends,” said Joe Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas-El Paso. “It’s a place where you have a really close binational community, where there are strong personal bonds.”
The lack of a public plan for normalizing crossings at U.S. land ports of entry has raised concern among Democrats and Republicans alike, some of whom have been asking for months for a path forward.
In October, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and representatives in Southwest border states demanded the Department of Homeland Security release guidelines for returning the nation’s border crossings to normal operations.
Acknowledging the “difficult balance that DHS must strike between protecting its officers and the public against COVID-19,” the bipartisan group charged that DHS “has provided little public insight into how it weighed the costs and benefits of these extended travel restrictions.”
“DHS has not publicly articulated a plan for returning to normal operations,” according to the letter, “or set forth any benchmarks that must be reached before the travel restrictions can be partially relaxed or completely lifted.”
The letter was signed by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., among others.
Contributing: Jayme Deerwester