WASHINGTON – Frustration at the Biden administration boiled over Wednesday among advocates of reopening the U.S.-Canadian border after the U.S. extended its travel restrictions between the two countries for a 17th month.
Rep. Brian Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat, called the move "unacceptable." Rep. Chris Jacobs, an Orchard Park Republican, lamented "the Biden administration's complete failure on this issue." And Marcella Picone of Williamsville, one of the most outspoken members of Families Are Essential, a group of people who have loved ones across the border, accused the administration of dismissing the concerns of people like her.
The Department of Homeland Security filed the Federal Register notice Wednesday, calling the extension of the border closure a public health decision.
"Biden is not only ignoring the Southern Border; he obviously doesn't even care about the Northern Border," said Picone, whose fiance lives in Hamilton, Ont.
Two days after Canadian officials announced at a press conference that they would allow vaccinated Americans to cross the border beginning on Aug. 9, the Biden administration announced the latest extension of the border closure for Canadians seeking entry into the U.S. The administration codified the extension in the Federal Register, a compendium of federal government actions that attracts little mass readership. The extension means the U.S. side of the border will be closed to nonessential travel until 11:59 p.m. on Aug. 21.
"Given the outbreak and continued transmission and spread of Covid-19, within the United States and globally, the Secretary has determined that the risk of continued transmission and spread of the virus associated with Covid-19 between the United States and Canada poses an ongoing 'specific threat to human life or national interests,' " the Department of Homeland Security said in the Federal Register notice, which was set to be officially published Thursday.
Travelers heading north to Canada on Aug. 9 or soon thereafter may think the Peace Bridge and other border crossings look like one-way streets.
Despite withering criticism of the extension, the Biden administration offered little further defense of the move. A White House spokesman referred questions about the extension to the Department of Homeland Security, where a spokeswoman merely repeated a statement the agency had already posted to Twitter.
“To decrease the spread of Covid-19, including the Delta variant, the United States is extending restrictions on non-essential travel at our land and ferry crossings with Canada and Mexico through August 21, while ensuring the continued flow of essential trade and travel," the statement said. "DHS is in constant contact with Canadian and Mexican counterparts to identify the conditions under which restrictions may be eased safely and sustainably.”
The U.S. government shut its borders to both Canada and Mexico on March 21, 2020, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. And while the number of infections in Canada has fallen in recent weeks, it's more than doubled in Mexico and the U.S., according to the Our World In Data Covid-19 Data Explorer.
That being the case, Higgins speculated that the Biden administration may be insisting on continuing to manage the border shutdown the same way at both the northern and southern borders, even though Canada's Covid-19 situation is improving.
"They're two very different borders" that should not be managed in the same way, Higgins said.
The short drive to southern Ontario could turn out to be both complicated and expensive.
He noted that shortly after taking office in January, Biden issued an executive order calling for a Covid-19 border strategy to be developed with the Canadian and Mexican governments within 14 days. Nothing ever came of that order.
"We have heard nothing from this administration for the past six months on this issue," Higgins said.
And some of what little lawmakers heard about the prolonged border shutdown turned out to be wrong. Administration officials privately indicated that Canada's caution was holding back the border reopening, but Higgins said that's now clearly not the case.
"I think everybody's been misled on this, and this is unacceptable," he said.
Nevertheless, Canadian officials appeared to take the Biden administration announcement in stride. Bill Blair, the Canadian minister of public safety and emergency preparedness, told reporters that U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told him that the U.S. planned to extend the border shutdown.
"It is the beginning of the end, a bright spot in an otherwise dark tunnel," said Rep. Brian Higgins.
"There are a number of considerations that I know that the American government is currently undertaking with respect to their borders and that work will continue," Blair said, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
But the American move won't interfere with Canada's plan to open its border to vaccinated Americans on Aug. 9, provided they show proof of a recent negative Covid-19 test, Blair added.
"Our responsibility, of course, is to look after the best interests of Canadians and to follow the advice of our public health officials," Blair said. "That's precisely what we have done."
Advocates of an open border in the U.S. said, though, that the Biden administration wasn't acting in the best interest of Americans.
“As Canada prepares to further open the border next month, the United States is failing to reciprocate, jeopardizing an already tenuous recovery for thousands of businesses, families and communities across Upstate New York," said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat who vowed to do "everything in my power" to open the border.
Dottie Gallagher, president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, said it was "illogical" to continue to close the land border when Canadians and Americans have long been able to fly between the two countries.
"I just don't understand what this accomplishes," she said. "I only understand that this is doing absolute harm to the businesses in our region."
The continuing shutdown also does absolute harm to the many families that remain separated by the border, said Devon Weber, founder of Let Us Reunite, another group that represents such families.
"Tragic is not a word I use often, but I think that's where we are at this point," said Weber, who lives in Montreal but has family in New York. "It's been 17 months. There's been no comment from the White House. There's no plan. There's no metrics. There's no light at the end of the tunnel."