On the anniversary of the United States’ closing of its borders to its neighbors to the north and south, lawmakers and families across the country separated by the border continue to languish with no clear end in sight.
“This has been a year of struggle for binational families,” said Devon Weber, founder of Let Us Reunite, a campaign of 2,200 families lobbying the U.S. government for greater travel exemptions for communities separated by the border shutdowns.
“Your life is in limbo and it’s extremely frustrating. Heartbreaking is the word that comes to mind,” Weber said of the situation affecting families on both sides of the border. Each month during the pandemic, border restrictions have been reauthorized with no clear end.
With a new administration in the White House, lawmakers have begun lobbying President Joe Biden for a clear timetable and reopening guidelines on both the U.S.-Canada and U.S.-Mexico borders.
“I don’t think there has been constructive, serious engagement. This could be done successfully and quickly but it requires a strong will,” Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., told USA TODAY. The congressman, whose district includes Buffalo, New York, has been an outspoken proponent of finding guidelines to ease international travel for border communities.
“The U.S.-Canadian relationship, generally speaking, took a major hit over the last four years, and in particular over the last twelve months, for no other reason than the silly personal politics between President Trump and Prime Minister Trudeau,” Higgins said of why negotiations to give certain populations easier cross border travel had not progressed under the Trump administration.
The White House is reportedly eyeing a normalization of both the northern and southern borders in mid-May when vaccines will likely become widely available across North America. Yet, so far there has been no formal announcement of such plans. The uncertainty continues to burden binational families and border communities.
In his first few days in office, Biden also signed executive orders directing federal agencies to work with Canada and Mexico to determine a sound reopening policy for non-essential land travel across both borders, though so far no policy has been released.
“The plan is late. I get that,” Higgins, who has challenged the White House to fully reopen the border by July 4, said of the current efforts. “I know from my conversations with people at the highest levels of the Biden administration that they are taking this seriously.”
Weber said that while separated families “appreciate that there are rumblings from the Biden administration, they are still just rumbling.”
The White House did not return USA TODAY’s request for comment on the border closures.
Other lawmakers who represent border communities have also called for greater travel access for those with family, property and business interests on both sides of the border.
In February, members of the Washington state congressional delegation sent an open letter to Biden urging him to make “safely reopening the United States-Canada border an immediate priority.” On March 11, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, called for an immediate easing of restrictions between the U.S. and Canada.
“I believe that we could implement procedures, such as requiring proof of a recent negative test or vaccination, to begin safely loosening the restrictions, which would be beneficial to families, the economy and small businesses that rely on Canadian customers,” Collins said.
“I still think that this is the United States of America, and we could have put certain safeguards in the border to protect the border community,” Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas said of the extension of border restrictions between the U.S. and Mexico in February. “There are ways to do this, but they have still yet not allowed” full travel across the land border, Cuellar lamented, promising to find “a balance between the economy and the health of individuals.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has met with his Canadian and Mexican counterparts to discuss border normalization, among other issues. The bipartisan critique of the administration, partly resulting from the diversity of impacted communities, has increased pressure on the administration to act.
It is technically possible for Americans to fly to Canada and Mexico, though Canada requires stringent public health measures before a trip and flights are logistically and financially difficult for families who normally live within driving distance of each other, according to Weber.
Higgins believes that as the U.S. becomes increasingly vaccinated and the pandemic subsides, a reopening of the border makes more sense from an economic and public health standpoint.
“Last year, the United States was the global leader in COVID-19 deaths. This year, we’re the leader in vaccine manufacturing,” Higgins argued.
“As Americans, we were told that the inflection point would be the deployment of a vaccine. We needed a benchmark, a goal to get back to normal. For us in Western New York and Ontario, a return to normal means reopening the border,” the congressman emphasized.
“We’re not asking for open borders. We are asking to see our families. We are well aware that many people in the United States have been in similar situations during this pandemic,” Weber said.