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Why Was the US-Canada Land Border Closed for So Long?


On Monday of this week, the US Government finally “re-opened” the Canadian land border, meaning that Canadians (and other foreign nationals) who were previously deemed “non-essential” may once again enter the US in their motor vehicles, after having been prohibited from doing so since March 2020. 

For months, elected officials and ordinary citizens alike in both countries have been puzzling over the strange fact that Canadians were legally permitted to fly into the US via commercial aircraft — after having gone to a crowded airport and inhaling whatever particles happened to be in circulation — but barred from driving over the border alone in their private cars. Surely there must be some profoundly convincing epidemiological rationale for this policy, somewhere.

But here’s the incredible part, which should be eye-opening even if you have no particular investment in whether the Canadian land border is open or closed: there appears to have never been any explanation for the policy. Nobody in a position of authority even attempted to justify the continuation of this ban until nearly the end of 2021. It just existed, months after there was any conceivable rationale for it. If you were hoping for someone in the Executive Branch to at some point divulge whatever rationale they were in fact operating on, you were out of luck.

One of the main advocates for re-opening the land border for the better part of the past year has been Rep. Brian Higgins, a Democratic congressman representing the Buffalo, New York region — which is of course economically and culturally intertwined with Southern Ontario, with multiple heavily-trafficked border crossings like the Peace Bridge and the Rainbow Bridge.

Higgins’ congressional district in Western New York

Higgins’ district, therefore, had been deprived of a huge source of economic activity over the past 20 months, i.e. the ability of Canadians to enter and engage in commerce. Not to mention the deprivation of friends, family, and romantic partners’ ability to see each other. Up until this week, a non-American living in Niagara Falls, Ontario was barred from making the five minute drive to Niagara Falls, New York — yet could get on a plane and fly anywhere in the US. Which is a concept most normal people understandably found bizarre. (It also arbitrarily disadvantaged residents who lacked the means to fly.)

And so Higgins is exactly the elected official you’d assume would be able to obtain an explanation from the Executive Branch for the reasoning behind this policy. He is, after all, a relatively senior House Democrat dealing with a Democratic administration. But his statements over the past several months became progressively angry and desperate, as no explanation could apparently be ascertained.

In June, Higgins was relegated to tweeting that the Department of Homeland Security’s explanation-free monthly extensions of the ban were “bullshit.” By October, the extensions had become so maddening that he went on Canadian TV to speculate whether the Biden Administration was basing its decision-making, or lack thereof, on “something other than what they say is the only relevant issue.” Which, supposedly, was a standard “follow the science” mantra involving binational vaccination rates. What could’ve been that “something other” factor? One was left to conjure increasingly cynical and/or nonsensical theories. (DHS never responded to my requests for comment.)

In September, CNN immigration reporter Priscilla Alvarez got around to addressing the subject of why flights from Canadian airports were considered virologically acceptable, but land border crossings were banned indefinitely. She relayed the following justification apparently given to her by the White House: “They are fully guided by the assessment and the analysis of public health and medical experts.” But… that’s not an explanation of anything. That’s a vapid cliche to end all vapid cliches. Where was the actual explanation for this extremely weighty policy, which affected millions of people and billions of dollars in economic activity?

“We never did receive justification for why the border remained closed for so long,” a spokesperson for Higgins, Theresa Kennedy, told me this week.

The mayor of Niagara Falls, NY, Robert Restaino, told me something similar: “The only information we were given initially… the issue was vaccination rates in Canada. But as the rate of fully vaccinated in Canada surpassed the USA, it became apparent that no good answer was available.” A spokesperson for the Erie County, NY executive Mark Poloncarz told me he lacked adequate “insight” to speak on the issue, and inquiries should be directed to Higgins.

So just think about this for a second. A long-serving Democratic congressman representing a region that is extremely interdependent with Canada could not even get a simple explanation from the Democratic administration for why the land border remained closed for as long as it did. Neither could the mayor of a city that is inordinately reliant on Canada-based transit (also a Democrat). The head of the county (yep, Democrat) was also clueless. Their pleas to the Federal Government over the course of months evidently did nothing but sink into a black hole of bureaucratic mystery.

How does one explain this dynamic? Perchance could it have anything to do with the absenteeism of Joe Biden, who was ultimately the one with the unilateral power to make the relevant policy decision? (The border had been closed pursuant to a presidential Executive Order.) Or maybe Biden was diligently on top of it all along, and regularly assessed the ramifications of this policy over which he had complete unbridled control. Also, maybe the moon is made of cheese.

Surely if prompted, Biden could provide a thorough and compelling explanation for why allowing people to drive across the border alone in their private vehicles was such an extreme public health threat on October 8, but by November 8 the threat had been eliminated. Or alternatively: no one really knew the justification, and no one could really explain. If you don’t think such institutionalized obliqueness has far-reaching policy implications well beyond COVID, I have a bridge to sell you in Cheektowaga.

This subject might not seem that significant if you’re not especially reliant on the Canadian land border. But the policy caused months of needless misery — all without the governmental authority in charge of making the decision bothering to even provide a coherent reason for it. Just last month, comedian Jimmy Dore told me that his Canadian fans were shocked to find they could not attend a show of his in Buffalo. The biggest injustice of all time? No, but ridiculous all the same, and at the very least somebody should’ve given an explanation!

Searching for that hidden explanation, one might observe that a full suite of international COVID-era travel bans for some reason just had to be lifted in one fell swoop on November 8. That day, previously-banned travelers from the European Union and UK were once again permitted to fly into the US, even though air travelers from Turkey and Mexico had faced no such ban — based on a logic that no one in a position of state power was ever meaningfully pressed to articulate.

Somehow it was impossible for the Biden Administration to make separate determinations about the Canadian border and the Mexico border, plus flights from the EU/UK, so they had to group all these disparate determinations together into one all-encompassing order. The real explanation, assuming there is one, thus might have had something vaguely to do with political or diplomatic calculations — even though the official explanation was always the all-purpose buzzword of “science.” 

Higgins said the Administration only eventually relented due to “political pressure.” Which is strange. Does that mean sans “pressure,” they would’ve just kept the Canadian land border closed for the rest of time? Why was this even a conflict that required “political pressure” to resolve in the first place? I thought all these “public health” measures were supposed to have been kept rigorously separated from “politics.”

Either way, the next time the media has a meltdown over the alleged irrationality of individual celebrities and athletes who don’t want to get vaccinated for whatever reason, ask yourself why they don’t direct the same ire against the US Government for its own demonstrable irrationality. What’s more consequential: whether Aaron Rodgers personally chooses to get vaccinated, or whether faceless government agencies impose nonsensical policies, for months on end, that affect millions of people, without bothering to justify what they’re doing?

“The lesson that we’ve learned from all of this is, bureaucracies are very hard to change. But if you go away they win,” Higgins said this week. “This was grossly mismanaged.”

If this particular bureaucracy operated so irrationally for so long and only changed course after months of relentless Congressional pleading, imagine the scores of other bureaucracies — on every level of both the public and private sectors — which are also stuck in similar states of idiotic inaction. 

Today the Canadian land border is finally open — though only to “fully vaccinated” foreign travelers, which is a whole other can of worms. But sometimes it’s worth pointing out that even according to their own vaguely-stated criteria, US Government policy frequently makes zero sense and is barely scrutinized. Despite the eagerness of pundits and politicians to bash the supposed senselessness of private citizens making their own personal decisions. Just something to keep in mind!

Republished from the author’s blog

Published under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
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