Families Seek Exemptions to U.S., Canada Land Border Closure

February 10, 2021 by Kate Michael
Virus Outbreak US Canada Border

WASHINGTON — When it comes to COVID restrictions along America’s northern border, the United States and Canada are treating travelers rather differently. While this may not be as concerning for most general discretionary travel, bi-national families are increasingly frustrated with U.S. policies barring Canadian citizens from visiting their U.S. relatives.

When the land border closed on March 20, 2020, the nations agreed to allow processing for land entry in “essential travel,” which was largely work-related. The allowances did not apply to air, freight rail, or sea travel — which were largely entirely prohibited — but did apply to passenger rail, passenger ferry travel, and pleasure boat travel. 

As COVID restrictions have continued, Canada amended its border policies, providing some exemptions, including dispensations for dual citizens, legal residents, those with student visas, possessing an Indian status card, and, most recently, for family travel. But the United States does not reciprocate those border policy procedures, leaving many Canadians unable to cross the border to see their loved ones in the United States. 

Now, there is a loophole. 

The U.S. amended some travel policies since the start of the pandemic as well. Stark travel restrictions still apply to Canadians trying to enter the U.S. at land border crossings by car, train, ferry, and pleasure boat. However, the U.S. does not deter Canadian travelers from crossing by air. 

“A ten-minute drive across a bridge has now turned into three flights, 18 hours, thousands of dollars, and contact with hundreds of people during a pandemic,” explained Devon Weber, founder of Let Us Reunite, speaking at a discussion of restoring openness of the U.S., Canada land border at the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank. 

Weber, who started the volunteer-led organization on Facebook in October of 2020, said that in mere months it has come to represent 2,000 families in the U.S. and Canada impacted by the land border closure. 

“There is an economic impact… as well as the personal toll on these families that have been apart for a year,” said Weber, upset that rules vary depending on which side of the border a person is crossing and the method by which they cross.

“We’re not just presenting a problem and saying, ‘Here, you solve it.’ Our solution [to the land border issue] is travel exemptions,” she said. 

Let Us Reunite has a singular focus. The group is lobbying the U.S. government to reciprocate family travel exemptions that Canada has already put in place. The group is specifically asking the U.S. government for exemptions to allow family reunification via the U.S., Canada land border.

Most foreign nationals cannot travel to Canada, even with a valid visitor visa or electronic travel authorization. These restrictions stop most discretionary travel to the country. But some exemptions have been identified. Among these exemptions are immediate and extended family members visiting Canada from the United States.

An immediate family member is a term that Canada has defined as either spouse or common-law partner, dependent child, dependent child of a dependent child, parent, step-parent, or guardian.

An extended family member is a term that Canada has defined as a non-dependent child, grandchild, sibling, half-sibling, step-sibling, or grandparent, as well as those in exclusive dating relationships for at least one year (who have spent physical time with the person during the course of the relationship).

Immediate family of all ages and extended family over the age of 18 are allowed to cross from the U.S. to Canada after a significant series of steps.

There is an application for authorization and a statutory declaration form which must be signed by both parties. On the part of the Canadian, the solemn declaration must be done in front of a legally authorized official. A copy of the signed declaration form must then be provided alongside a written authorization from Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), as well as proof that the extended family member is a Canadian citizen. There must be a quarantine plan, and the written authorization only remains valid for six months.

The rules are by no means lax. Still, Let Us Reunite members want to establish reciprocal policies so their Canadian family can visit them in the states… without having to fly. 

“We’re not trying to cause more spread. We’re trying to reunite with our families and… deal with some of the other issues that happen when you pull families apart,” said Cary Whaley, Let Us Reunite co-founder. “Family emergencies have come and gone; I feel like I’ve left my [Canadian] partner without a partner.”

Let Us Reunite has galvanized its community and organized lobbying efforts with U.S. lawmakers to discuss safe policy options for cross-border family reunification. 

“Responses have been overwhelmingly positive,” said Weber. “This is the most bipartisan issue I have ever worked on in my career.”

Champions in Congress include members of the Northern Border Caucus, like Reps. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., and Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., who have border towns within their jurisdictions. The Caucus has called for guidance to prepare for a phased reopening of the land border to include: establishing a binational plan, prioritizing vaccination and testing of border staff, allowing families to safely reunite, developing policies for property owners, and reciprocating access to transit through various boundaries.

The U.S., Canada land border is anticipated to be closed through February 21, 2021, though there is a high likelihood of extension. 

“The worst part about the closure is not its protractedness, but that it’s indefinite,” said Whaley.  “There’s a simple step that the U.S. government can take — reciprocate.”

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