BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — A bipartisan group of federal lawmakers, led by Rep. Brian Higgins (D-NY26) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY21), is putting pressure on President Joe Biden over how to update the federal government’s Covid-19 policy for land border crossings.
The letter, signed by 24 members of Congress including Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY23) and Rep. Chris Jacobs (R-NY27), presents suggestions for Biden to consider as his administration develops a plan to change the policy that limits who is allowed to cross at the border.
“As members representing congressional districts along the U.S. Northern Border, we urge your Administration to prioritize working with the Canadian government to increase the number of essential traveler exceptions to current border restrictions and establish a plan, guided by public health metrics, upon which the United States – Canada land border will be re-opened to non-essential travel,” the letter states.
On January 21st, President Biden signed an Executive Order that directed the Secretary of Homeland Security, Secretary of Transportation, and Secretary of Health and Human Services to “submit to the President a plan to implement appropriate public health measures at land ports of entry.”
Non-essential travel has been banned from land ports of entry along the northern border since March 20th, 2020. The measure was reciprocally enacted by Canada, however Canada has since expanded its border crossing exemptions to allow family members of Canadian citizens into its country. That modification was not reciprocated in the United States at land ports of entry, leaving thousands of Canadians unable to make overland crossings into the United States.
For example, a Canadian living in Niagara-on-the-Lake would have to fly into the U.S. in order to visit their spouse in Buffalo. A one hour drive from NOTL to Buffalo would become an expensive and likely multi-hour air travel experience.
Devon Weber is the founder of Let Us Reunite. The group wants the U.S. to adopt the same family exemption policy as Canada. It's been working with congressman, including Higgins, and spreading awareness on social media for months.
"The best case scenario is that, today, President Biden issues an executive order directing the Department of Homeland Security to create a policy for family reunification," Weber said.
Weber and her family moved to Montreal from New York City shortly before the pandemic.
"I want my son to be able to know his family that's in New York," Weber said.
Due to the travel restrictions Weber and her husband were not able to make the trip to New York to see her parents, her older parents had to travel to her which concerned Weber.
"They drove from New York City to Montreal the second week of January, and I will say that those ten hours that my parents spent in the car driving up from New York to Montreal were probably the scariest ten hours of my life just because I don't want to expose them," she said.
Rachel Marino from Clarence is also a member of Let Us Reunite and Faces of Advocacy. She hasn't seen her partner of two and a half years since March. He lives in St. Cathatine's Ontario with his daughters, she lives in Clarence with hers.
"We've been forced to not only separate, but also miss out on so much," Marino said. "We've missed out on special occasions, and birthdays, and holidays, so it's been really, it tugs at the heart. You know my heart breaks, you feel sad, you know depressed, anxious because there’s no end in sight, there’s no plan as to when things are going to open up again.”
Not only do many Western New Yorkers have loved ones they have not seen in months, but they also have properties directly over the border that they cannot access due to the current restrictions. The letter details the “significant impact these restrictions have had on individuals, families, businesses, and communities on both sides of the border.”
The bipartisan coalition has presented Biden with five suggestions to tweak the land border crossing restrictions:
- Establish a bilateral plan for restoring travel
- Prioritize vaccines and testing for all Customs and Border Protection staff
- Allow for families to safely reunite
- Develop a policy for property owners
- Ensure reciprocal access to transit through boundary waters
Higgins has been steadily working since last spring to push for amendments to the land border crossings. A week after Biden named Alejandro Mayorkas the Secretary-Designate of Homeland Security, Higgins wrote Mayorkas in an effort to get the land border crossing issue on his radar.
“A collaborative effort to reopen the border would ensure that there are not duplicative and onerous processes for Canadian and American travelers,” Higgins wrote to Mayorkas on December 1st.
Biden’s January 21st Executive Order directs his administration’s departments to develop a plan within 14 days.