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Why won’t Joe Biden reopen the border with Canada? An email from Donald Trump holds a clue

Aug 9, 2021

Mon., Aug. 9, 2021timer4 min. read updateArticle was updated 1 hr ago WASHINGTON—This morning, as thousands of fully vaccinated Americans were crossing the Canadian border for the first time since the pandemic began, I was talking with Americans about why the U.S. hasn’t opened its land border to Canadians yet. Just then, I got a statement about the U.S.-Mexican border in my inbox from former president Donald Trump. That the two topics might be related may not strike you as obvious. Many Canadians are familiar with the often explosive politics in the U.S. regarding the Mexican border — Trump’s longtime cries of “build a wall,” for example, were loud enough to be heard up north. But Canadians considering whether they can vacation in Florida or shop at a Target in Buffalo may not think that has anything to do with them. Yet in conversations with those inside and outside the U.S. government who follow Canadian border issues closely, the subject of the Mexican border frequently comes up. “The issue is always that the U.S. has two borders,” trade lawyer Dan Ujczo said recently. He works on Canada-U.S. trade issues, and previously worked in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and on border issues in the Canadian government. “We can’t do something for Canada that we’re not going to do for Mexico, and the situation in Mexico is awful right now.” He was referring to the pandemic in Mexico, where the government recently put the capital city on COVID “red alert,” as daily cases surge towards an all-time high, and less than 40 per cent of the population has received even a single dose of a vaccine. Moreover, earlier this year Mexico relied heavily on vaccines from Russia and China that are not approved for use, or trusted, in the U.S. On top of those legitimate public-health factors, the Mexican border is also a flashpoint in U.S. COVID politics. Republican politicians in Florida and Texas, presiding over massive surges in cases and hospitalizations in their states, have been quick to try and blame President Joe Biden’s southern border policy. Such claims have been quickly discredited but that doesn’t stop them from being repeated. That was the subject of Trump’s statement sent to the press Monday morning, blaming the Delta spread on Biden allowing “highly infected people (to) pour into our country.” He went on to suggest (what else?) building a wall, and that the presidential election was rigged. That such incredible claims are, well, not credible, doesn’t stop them from being a real political issue in the U.S.: an Axios poll last week showed about a third of Americans blame foreign travellers for the rising spread of COVID. Which means the southern border is a hot button pandemic issue. Which also makes the northern border a somewhat politically sensitive issue for a Democratic president. Among Biden’s base, the idea of having one policy apply to Canadians (where the population is 72 per cent white people) and another, more restrictive policy apply to Mexicans (overwhelmingly people of colour) is not a popular idea. Bruce Heyman, a former U.S. ambassador to Canada, didn’t get into those racial or political dynamics when I asked him about the border discussions. But Heyman has acknowledged that an aversion to having different policies at the northern and southern borders is a factor in the current U.S. reluctance to allow fully vaccinated Canadians to visit. And he says decisions about who to allow into the country and how to verify their vaccination status are complicated when considering, for example, the different vaccinations available in Mexico — and Canada, in the case of AstraZeneca — that aren’t approved in the U.S. “The other point, obviously, is the Mexican population is not nearly vaccinated at the level of Canada or the U.S.” Heyman said. “Should the U.S. have separate border policies for our separate border locations? Or should we have uniform border laws and rules? And if we have separate, how do we implement that? And what legal requirements are necessary to implement that? And what are the complexities of that? And what are the unintended consequences of doing that?” Heyman stresses that issues related to southern border concerns are just some of the many factors that make the U.S. reluctant to reopen borders, and that his understanding is that U.S. and Canadian authorities are in active, productive discussions. His general sense is that despite an earlier perception among many that the U.S. was impatient to reopen, the truth then and now was that the U.S. is simply “not ready yet.” It is not that the more fully vaccinated Canadian population, in a country where the spread of COVID is less prevalent, poses any perceived risk to the U.S. It’s that the U.S. perceives a lot of risks in general right now. But the risk — real and political — of reopening to Mexico may weigh more heavily in deliberations about the northern border than most Canadians would think. Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: Read more about:

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