Like all truly great bureaucracies, unelected United States government staff members revel in adhering to nonsensical, inefficient procedures to create some semblance of order and limit autonomous decision-making. When it comes to US international travel policy, President Biden’s bureaucratic army has come out in full force to accomplish absolutely nothing and avoid all responsibility. At the heart of this evasion of public accountability is the Administration’s uncanny deference to other parts of itself.
During a White House briefing in July of 2021, the press inquired why Americans were allowed to travel to other countries, but the US was still banning foreigners following the release of the COVID-19 vaccines: “Does the President believe it’s safe for Americans to travel to Europe, but it’s not safe for Europeans to travel here?” Former Press Secretary Jen Psaki responded that decisions regarding international travel would be made by “our public health and medical experts.” Here, the White House deferred to the Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Then in September 2021, the White House announced it would be resuming international travel, but only for vaccinated foreigners. Psaki informed the press that defining “vaccinated” would be part of the “interagency” discussion before the new policy would go into effect in November. When later confronted about the inconsistency between the land border and air entry policies, Psaki then answered that “we’ve” put these policies in place based upon the CDC’s recommendations.
In listening to those among other White House remarks, it is clear that the White House is working in coordination with the CDC, and presumably the Department of Health that oversees the CDC, to develop all of its travel policies with respect to the COVID-19 pandemic. To any listener, the messages would convey that the President, the CDC, and HHS all bear responsibility for the policies and are working together to draft and enforce them.
In fact, Health Secretary Xavier Becerra does bear the burden of advising the President when the vaccine mandate for foreign travelers should end. That responsibility is specially assigned to him under President Biden’s Proclamation 10294, which prohibits unvaccinated noncitizens from entering the US with very few exceptions. The President’s executive order, however, charged the CDC with creating an order to implement his authoritarian decree. Unvaccinated noncitizen nonimmigrants were definitely not welcome in the US as of November 2021.
In a very public scandal shortly thereafter, tennis star Novak Djokovic was deported from Australia without playing in the 2022 Australian Open after the government determined his failure to vaccinate against covid excluded him from the nation. Devastated fans around the globe would yet again see disappointment when the superstar was denied entry into the US for being unvaccinated, missing his chance at winning titles at the 2022 Indian Wells or Miami Open.
Unfortunately for eager foreign tourists and visa holders, including Djokovic, the CDC in June 2022 decided to remove its periodic review and expiration date of the order, opting instead to review the vaccine mandate of foreign travelers on an “as-needed” basis. Hope abounded for tennis fans, however, when the CDC updated its general covid guidance on August 19, 2022. The CDC indicated vaccination status was no longer relevant to the issue of covid prevention since there were “breakthrough infections.”
Yet by August 24, 2022, the CDC did not remove its ban against unvaccinated foreign travelers. Around this time, the US also began seeing a surge of migrants in the area of the US-Mexican border. Fox News correspondent, Peter Doocy, was quick to address the confounding issue at the next White House briefing. “How come migrants are allowed to come into this country unvaccinated, but world-class tennis players are not?” Doocey jousted with Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre over Djokovic’s exclusion. At first, she deflected that the US government is not permitted to discuss individuals’ visa cases.
Jean-Pierre then gives deference over the policy to the CDC: “As it relates to the tennis… look, those questions regarding vaccination requirements… I defer you to CDC. This is a CDC requirement for foreign nationals. This is something that they decide. This is — so, this is something that is up to them — the US Open and their participant protocols. I’d refer you to them; they have their own specific protocols as well.”
Take note: the US Open did not require proof of vaccination for the 2022 tournament. So in August 2022, the White House made it unequivocally clear that the CDC bears the responsibility for disposing of the policy preventing unvaccinated foreigners from traveling to the US, right? Not so fast…
Your author, whose unvaccinated noncitizen fiancé has been denied entry into the US based on this policy, began contacting various players who may have influence in encouraging the Administration to review and rescind the outmoded and unnecessary restriction in September 2022, following President Biden’s public declaration that “the pandemic is over.”
In calling the White House comment line, the White House staff member was surprised to hear the travel restriction was still in place. Indeed, I found most US citizens I have confronted with the travel policy did not know “that’s still a thing.” The world has already been moving on for quite some time.
The National Travel and Tourism Office kindly deferred my inquiry to the Bureau of Consular Affairs and the CDC, as the NTTO had “no role” in the policy and would be unable to offer “any assistance.” My email and phone calls to the Federal Register point of contact for the CDC’s Amended Order then went unanswered.
The CDC listed “DGMQ Policy Office” as the point of contact regarding the covid travel restrictions. Their email generates an automatic reply, which amusingly states, “This email box accepts questions about a CDC Dog Import Permit, and questions regarding the transport of human remains.” The automatic reply then directs recipients to contact their airline for questions about providing proof of vaccination before entering the US. I wondered if this was the correct point of contact, so I dug further.
The original CDC order from November 2021 provided a different point of contact within the agency. When I tried contacting her, the CDC server rejected my email as being outside of the organization. Did the CDC allow outsiders to ask questions regarding the international travel restrictions at all? Scouring their website for any signs of a human being to contact, I learned that Biden’s CDC has a “Health Equity Workgroup” composed of health and DEI professionals across the country. Because they do not work directly for the CDC, I was able to email many of those group members asking for help. I encouraged the members to address the discrimination against foreigners who exercised medical autonomy and religious freedom.
One obliging soul in this workgroup forwarded my plea to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky’s Advisory Committee, who then emailed me directly in October 2022: “We appreciate your message and will share it with the members of the Advisory Committee.” Following that email, and despite requests for follow-up, I received no updates or further replies. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the CDC was already on notice that the covid travel restrictions were unlawful and potentially leading towards a complaint in federal court.
Calls to the CDC general information line raising questions of when the policy would be reviewed and rescinded were met with instructions for me to review their website for updated covid guidances. When informed that the current guidance and international travel policy conflict, CDC representatives reminded me that the restrictions are in place and to refer to the website.
Having no luck with the bureaucratic robots and automatic replies, I began writing to US Senators and Representatives. Senators Bob Casey, Jr. (D-PA) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) did not respond.
Representative Chrissy Houlahan’s (D-PA) staff advised that the congresswoman had no jurisdiction over the matter even though the Administration’s policy was operating contrary to the National Immigration Act, which only requires proof of vaccination against “vaccine-preventable diseases” for entry into the US. Although the Administration’s requirement for proof of vaccination against a non-preventable disease creates law in violation of Article I of the US Constitution, the legislator further indicated she supports the “public health officials” restricting exercise of personal and medical freedoms in the name of public health.
Despite these lawmakers’ disinterest or contrary interest in lifting the travel ban, Representative Thomas Massie (R-KY) finally introduced in the House a legislative measure to terminate the proof of covid vaccination requirement for foreign travelers. H.R. 185 would end the ban of unvaccinated noncitizens traveling by air and remove any funding for such a vaccine mandate.
Thankfully, that measure is garnering great support in light of recent events. In an epic victory, Djokovic not only returned to the 2023 Australian Open–still an unvaccinated champion–he defeated his challengers and claimed the title. His win not only brought triumph for the vilified unvaccinated persons around the world, but it also brought the spotlight back to the US international travel policy.
The US remains the only Western nation and the largest economy still restricting international travel by vaccination status; most countries do not require vaccination. Even Canada removed its covid travel restrictions in October 2022. As a result, Djokovic will yet again be unable to compete in the Indian Wells and Miami Open competitions in March 2023.
Congress, however, is making its stance on covid restrictions and related vaccine mandates well known. Last November, the Senate passed a resolution to end the covid public health emergency in a bipartisan vote of 62 to 36. Just this week, the House passed a similar measure in a party-line vote. That resolution is awaiting a vote in the Senate, as is another bill that passed the House to end vaccine mandates for healthcare workers. The 117th session of Congress ended with Biden signing the Defense Authorization Act into law, which removed the vaccine mandate for the military.
These legislative resolutions are more relevant now than ever to ending the covid travel restrictions following President Biden’s announcement that he will end the covid PHE on May 11th–a date that has no basis in science and no seer prophesying a sudden end to the “emergency,” only a wish to “wind down” covid programs.
Lawmakers are wary of this promise. Since the PHE was already set to expire on April 11, 2023, his announcement is actually a decree to extend the PHE a tenth time during his presidency. He then told reporters the next day that the emergency would end “when the Supreme Court ends it.” Considering the US Supreme Court does not have the authority to end a public emergency save for constitutional issues, his comment is either a severe error or a threat. Thus, the pressure mounts.
The US Travel Association is now pressing the Administration and Congress to end the travel ban. While the lobby’s focus last year had primarily been on reducing visa wait times, its focus quickly shifted to prioritizing ending covid restrictions following the PHE announcement. CEO Geoff Freeman strongly questioned Biden’s decision to end the emergency in May: “but why wait til [sic] May? We have the power right now to remove this requirement to bring travelers back into the country.”
The CDC responded regarding the effect of the President’s statement on the covid travel policy: To summarize, the CDC issued an order implementing Presidential Proclamation 10294 at the direction of the President. “For questions about the status of the Proclamation, we defer to the White House.” The White House and HHS did not respond to my request for comment.
While the White House, HHS, and CDC defer whose responsibility it is to terminate the senseless and unlawful international travel restriction, HR 185 is set to be voted on in the House this week. Let’s hope the anti-bureaucratic legislative process can bring Proclamation 10294 and the ban against unvaccinated foreign travelers to an end at last.