'U.S. has done nothing’: Why Canadians can’t cross the border into America

·7 min read
'U.S. has done nothing’: Why Canadians can’t cross the border into America

Fully vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents are now allowed to come to Canada for non-essential travel purposes (including day trips across the land border), but at this point, plans for when that cross-border movement will be allowed for Canadians wishing to go to the U.S. are still “up in the air.”

“I think that it's up in the air because the decision hasn't been made and so, outside of the White House at least, nobody that I know has had a clear indication,” Dr. Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University, told Yahoo Canada.

I would not have expected Canada to have moved more quickly than the U.S., largely because Canadian public opinion was very against reopening the border, whereas I don't think in the U.S. it’s been that much of an issue, at least for the Canadian side.Dr. Laurie Trautman, director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University

On July 21, the U.S. government renewed its restrictions at the Canada-U.S. border until at least Aug. 21, which prohibits land border movement into the U.S. for any non-essential purposes.

The Biden administration made the decision just days after the Canadian government announced the loosened travel restrictions for fully-vaccinated American visitors, which came into effect on Monday.

In a joint letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the border state governors of Alaska, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Vermont and Washington, requested additional information on the justification for the extended border restrictions and what threshold needs to be met for these rules to be loosened.

“It is our strongly held view as Governors that the public health data, science and advice of our own experts support a responsible, timely reopening plan,” the letter states.

“At this point in the nation’s work to get the economy back on track, it is imperative that the federal government work more closely and transparently with us and our Canadian provincial counterparts to quickly define and implement a reopening plan. We have no doubt such a plan can ensure the safety and welfare of American citizens during this ever-changing pandemic landscape.”

Why hasn't the U.S. opened the border yet?

Trautman described the U.S. approach to Canada-U.S. border measures as “unclear” and “very obscure,” at this point.

“For a while it felt like there was a lot of pressure on Canada to loosen restrictions because the Quarantine Act was quite strict and [there was] a real expectation that the U.S. was going to open at the end of June,” she said.

“Obviously that didn't happen, and now Canada has moved forward and the U.S. has done nothing,” she said. We don't even have a plan in place.”

Trautman also stressed that the decision-making authority in this circumstance is not necessarily with the Department of Homeland Security, but it’s within the White House and with the American COVID-19 Task Force.

“That's a number of different agencies that all have to agree on what should happen,” she said.

“I think part of the reason the U.S. hasn't really moved on this is that there's a lot of cooks in the kitchen and they can't necessarily agree, and then of course you do have the Delta variant and vaccination rates in the U.S, not being as great as they should be.”

To date, just over 50 per cent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, with close to 60 per cent partially vaccinated, while the country is averaging about 100,000 new COVID-19 cases a day.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 23:  U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau deliver opening statements via video link in the East Room of the White House February 23, 2021 in Washington, DC. U.S. presidents by tradition invite the Canadian prime minister for their first meeting with a world leader. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic forced the meeting to be held virtually.  (Photo by Pete Marovich-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 23: U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau deliver opening statements via video link in the East Room of the White House February 23, 2021 in Washington, DC. U.S. presidents by tradition invite the Canadian prime minister for their first meeting with a world leader. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic forced the meeting to be held virtually. (Photo by Pete Marovich-Pool/Getty Images)

Have Canada, U.S. officially really collaborated on border measures?

A readout from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office last week stated that Trudeau and President Joe Biden “discussed COVID-19 and agreed to continue close collaboration in the management of the Canada-U.S. land border.”

While people on both sides of the border continue to hear about collaboration and discussions between Canada and U.S. officials, Trautman recognizes that these discussions haven not particularly translated to concrete coordination on their approach to the Canada-U.S. border measures.

“We find ourselves in a situation where Canada has one approach,...they have the ArriveCAN app, and the United States is going to have something totally different,” she explained. 

That's a problem because if we have different systems for the same people moving back and forth, not only is it going to be more costly from a time perspective, but it's going to be confusing.Dr. Laurie Trautman, Director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University

“The thing about U.S.-Canada travel, it’s the same people moving back and forth, and on the land border, they're crossing sometimes multiple times in one day.”

The border expert also recognizes that the previous Trump administration “hollowed out” these channels, particularly with the U.S. Ambassador to Canada position being vacant for two years and a previous string of acting secretaries of the Department of Homeland Security.

“This institutional capacity got hollowed out and then you had a whole new administration come in that has to kind of refill it during this time of a major crisis,” Trautman explained. “So I think there's a lot of reasons why the collaboration and the coordination weren't better, but the end result is going to be a thickened border that’s more difficult to cross.”

FILE - In this June 8, 2021, file photo, a car heads into the U.S. from Canada at the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine, Wash. Canada is lifting its prohibition Monday, Aug. 9, on Americans crossing the border to shop, vacation or visit, but the United States is keeping similar restrictions in place for Canadians. The reopening Monday is part of a bumpy return to normalcy from COVID-19 travel bans.  (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
FILE - In this June 8, 2021, file photo, a car heads into the U.S. from Canada at the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine, Wash. Canada is lifting its prohibition Monday, Aug. 9, on Americans crossing the border to shop, vacation or visit, but the United States is keeping similar restrictions in place for Canadians. The reopening Monday is part of a bumpy return to normalcy from COVID-19 travel bans. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

‘Long-term dampening on cross border flow’

Trautman, like many, was shocked that there are still Canada-U.S. border restrictions almost a year and half after coming into effect in March 2020, particularly with how fluid movement between the two countries was before that time.

“I think that the fact that Canada was screening travellers based on their trip purpose and not their health status is problematic, if the purpose of the restrictions is to protect people's health,” she said.

“This entire time there's been millions of people going back and forth across the border, either in the air mode coming into the U.S, or because they were considered essential travellers at the land border.”

In terms of what the future holds for Canada-U.S. travel, particularly for land border crossings, Trautman anticipates that it’s going to take a while for movement between the countries to be as fluid as it was in the pre-pandemic world.

“After 9/11 happened, the border was barely even closed for a day,...but if you look at the volume pre-9/11 and post-9/11 of people crossing the land border from Canada into the U.S., they've never recovered,” Trautman explained. “Part of that is more people are flying but that doesn't account for the full differences.”

“So there's definitely, I think, going to be a long-term dampening on cross border flow.”

Additionally, looking at the short-term, while Canadians may have been used to crossing into the U.S. every weekend to pick up their favourite snacks at Trader Joe’s, after coming out of that cycle for a long time, some may not quickly return to that regular cadence of activity.

“I think now there's this realization that, ‘oh, well the border could be closed again,’” Trautman said.

This wasn't really a reality before the pandemic, that the border could actually be restricted in this way for so long, and now it is, and so I do think that's going to stick with people.Dr. Laurie Trautman, Director of the Border Policy Research Institute at Western Washington University