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Biden’s move on US-Canada border could have more to do with Mexico border

7/27/21

Detroit Free Press

By Todd Spangler 

After last week’s surprise announcement that the U.S. border with Canada would remain closed to nonessential travel until at least Aug. 21, quiet speculation — and consternation — has been rampant that problems along the southern border may be to blame.

The concern is that, even though Canadian vaccine rates have surpassed those in the U.S., the Biden administration is wary of opening the northern border while keeping those same restrictions in place along the border with Mexico, where vaccination rates are lagging.

Relaxing restrictions along the southern border is also complicated by the extraordinary number of people trying to enter the U.S. from Mexico, which is at levels not seen in decades, and pressure on President Joe Biden to revise rules that allow asylum seekers to be turned back because of COVID-19. But treating the two borders differently presents political problems, given that Canada, Mexico and the U.S. are close trading partners and that many Democrats believe the U.S. should be more welcoming to immigrants fleeing violence in Central America.

Some in northern border states, including Michigan, still feel they’re being unfairly penalized — with family unable to visit or businesses losing out on Canadian customers and tourists — for political reasons, not heath ones.

“It’s tough governing. Difficult decisions have to be made,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, when asked how Biden might balance those interests. A leader of a group of American legislators that coordinates cross-border issues with Canadian lawmakers, he has been advocating a reopening of the border to vaccinated Canadians and critical of Biden’s response.

“We know the southern border crisis isn’t purely about Mexico … these are people from around Central America (trying to enter),” he said. “The northern border issue (where there isn’t the same level of attempted entries) is a different type of issue and shame on them for not being able to recognize that.”

Biden administration mum

Huizenga has heard concerns from colleagues on both sides of of the border that southern border politics may be slowing a northern border opening, even though few are saying it publicly. The Biden administration last week declined to comment on the speculation for the Free Press.

But sources either directly involved in the push to open the border or with close contacts in both countries told the Free Press that worries were high that the situation along the southern border — and the divisive politics involved, with Republicans chastising Biden for taking a tougher public stand against illegal entries — was playing a role.

It’s not just Republicans, either. After the Canadian government announced it would allow vaccinated Americans to enter beginning Aug. 9, many believed the Biden administration would follow suit.

Instead, citing concerns over the delta variant of the virus — but despite low levels of hospitalizations among the vaccinated and current rules that already allow Canadians to fly into the U.S. — the Department of Homeland Security said last week it was keeping the land border restrictions in place until at least Aug. 21.

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said he was “extremely disappointed.” U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democrat who represents the Buffalo area in New York, lashed out, saying the administration has given no reasonable justification for the continued closing.

 “We’re left to speculate without any clarity from the administration the arbitrary decision to keep the border closed,” Higgins told the Free Press last week. “The irony is if you fly from Toronto to Buffalo, it’s OK. How does that make sense?

“For 16 months, we have been told to follow the science. If you look at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) COVID guidance, it says, if fully vaccinated, you can resume pre-pandemic activity.”

Legislators may push for answers

Higgins said that while he can’t say for certain that it’s issues along the southern border that are keeping the northern border restrictions in place, he acknowledges the speculation is there and growing. Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial calling it “Biden’s Canadian COVID blockade.”

The newspaper also published a story last week with one unnamed official speculating that southern border issues were at least in part responsible for the continued northern border closing.

Higgins and Huizenga both said they expect those who have been pushing for a reopening of the border to increase efforts to get congressional committees to demand a better answer from the administration. U.S. Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, blasted the Biden administration and was one of the few to link the northern border issue with the southern border.

“These decisions are clearly not founded in any concern for public health,” he said. “This inequity is nonsensical and continues to hamper local economies.”

Meanwhile, Biden’s top official on the question — Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas — was asked about the Canadian border Tuesday when he came before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is chaired by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich.

“Travel restrictions … continue to present significant challenges,” Peters told the Free Press on Monday. “That is why I have continued to urge President Biden and Secretary Mayorkas to provide increased transparency on pandemic-related travel restrictions.”

Peters didn’t ask specifically about the Mexican border but urged Mayorkas to consider relaxing restrictions on Canadians that are having a “serious” impact on Michigan and other northern border states.

U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., also told Mayorkas the argument for keeping vaccinated Canadians out of the U.S. didn’t make sense. “I don’t understand the public health analysis… I would urge you to take the steps you need to take to open the border to vaccinated Canadians as quickly as you can.”

Mayorkas reiterated that it was health reasons, and noting else, that was keeping the restrictions in place.

In Michigan, members of both parties have called for the border to be reopened.

While essential travel such as cross-border trade and health care visits have been allowed since last year, there are still reportedly billions being lost by businesses that count on Canadian travel, not to mention less regular business visits — say, by salespeople — that may be more difficult to explain to border agents in order to cross.

Bill Anderson, the head of the Cross-Border Institute at the University of Windsor, said a “lack of direct interaction” between businesses is taking its toll. “They’re the ones that really suffer a lot from this. … They’re losing orders because it’s not easy for them to go back and forth.”

U.S. slow to lift other restrictions also

At the Detroit Regional Chamber, which represents businesses in southeast Michigan, President and CEO Sandy Baruah said the impact on major businesses in metro Detroit hasn’t been great because travel deemed essential has been allowed.

But he acknowledged some businesses have been affected. “Certainly we would like to see it opened up,” he said. “We’re advocating the U.S. government should follow suit (with Canada).”

Baruah, who was an assistant Commerce Department secretary and acting head of the Small Business Administration under President George W. Bush, said while he has no inside information about deliberations, he wonders whether the Biden administration’s hesitance may have to do with more than just the southern border.

The U.S., he noted, has been slow to lift restrictions on incoming entries from many European countries and elsewhere, including those that allow vaccinated Americans across their borders.

Whatever is the case, Huizenga said few officials accept the Biden administration’s argument that new variants and continued risk from COVID-19 justify the continued closure of the Canadian border.

“Flat-out no,” he said when asked whether he took the administration at its word. “I think that’s a convenient excuse. When you dig in a little bit, it unravels.”

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