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Criticism for U.S. government as next border closure decision looms

Aug 17, 2021, 1:10 PM
US Canada Border Blaine Washington, border closure...
The U.S./Canada border crossing in Blaine, Washington. (Jasperdo, Flickr Creative Commons)

The U.S. government is due to make a decision later this week on whether or not to extend the border closure to Canadians another month.

Before that happens, the American federal government — which has faced backlash for months from state government leaders like Governor Inslee and Washington’s Congressional Delegation — is also earning criticism from foreign policy experts for keeping the border closed this past month, even after Canada opened its doors to vaccinated Americans.

At a panel Monday during the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region’s Annual Summit in Montana, Canadian and American government members discussed how the border closure could have been handled better — and what could be learned for inevitable future pandemics.

State leaders ‘deeply disappointed’ by decision to extend U.S. border closure

Alan Bersin, who served as Assistant Secretary for International Affairs during the Obama administration, as well as Chief Diplomatic Officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Office of Policy, and Vice President of INTERPOL for the Americas Region, says the border closure has become too much about the games of politics, instead of the health-based decision it ought to be.

“There’s been a massive, massive political failure here,” Bersin said.

The half-open, half-closed border situation created by Canada opening to vaccinated Americans on Aug. 9 and the U.S. staying closed has created a nightmare situation for the businesses of Point Roberts, already teetering on the brink after 17 months of being cut off from both Canadian and American customers. With Canadians — who own most of the homes in Point Roberts as vacation residences — barred from coming into the isolated community that shares a land border only with Canada, and the Americans of Point Roberts now free to go shopping across the border in British Columbia, the businesses in the small town are losing what little customer base they had left.

Instead of having one side closed and one opened, Bersin argued that what should have happened was a unified approach between the United States and Canada to apply the same restrictions to people crossing on both sides. He believes that the federal government under the Biden administration was too afraid to take a stance on subjects as controversial as vaccine requirements, or to make a decision on the northern border when the southern border is such a point of contention.

“This is a very dangerous precedent, and a very dangerous experience,” Bersin said, looking ahead to possible future crises that could warrant a similar border closure.

However, Ted Sobel, attaché to Canada with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said there was no legal requirement to keep the same policies at both the southern and northern borders, and that the northern border could potentially open first. The reason that the national government decided to keep the border closed another month, he said, was not due to the southern border, but rather all to do with the delta variant, which was just starting its major surge at the time the last border closure extension was announced in late July.

“What really loomed large was the spread of the delta variant and all the unknowns about that, as well as trends in domestic public health — dealing with things like vaccination rates, hospitalization rates, new infection rates,” Sobel explained. “So those are the things that we were looking at very closely.”

He called the decision a “day-to-day review” that is based on the most recent data at any given time, noting that it was never meant to be a completely “symmetric approach” with Canada.

“Right now it has made sense to take this very tightly coordinated approach,” he said, adding, “We continue on a 30-day cycle — for the very reason that we want to maintain the flexibility.”

He pointed out that if things get noticeably better within the 30 days, the border could reopen early.

Bersin’s idea is to remove the politicians from the decision-making entirely and put it in the hands of health care leaders.

“I think the answer is, we have to have subject matter expertise govern these decisions,” he said. “In certain cross-border matters like water and boundaries, we don’t make those political debates. … I believe we’re going to have to do the same thing in the public health sphere.”

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Criticism for U.S. government as next border closure decision looms