Schumer calls for unilateral reopening of U.S.-Canadian border

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer speaks during a press conference last Tuesday afternoon inside the Market Square pavilion in Sackets Harbor. Schumer visited to announce plans to reopen the U.S.-Canadian border by July 21. (Provided photo — Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times)

SACKETS HARBOR — Canadian politics are holding back the reopening of the northern border, and it’s time the United States take unilateral steps to allow more crossings, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer said Tuesday.

As part of a day-long trip around Upstate New York, Sen. Schumer, D-N.Y. visited Sackets Harbor at noon Tuesday to call for the United States to begin allowing Canadians vaccinated against COVID-19 to cross the border into the U.S. by July 21.

“I am today declaring that it’s time for the United States to take action, even without the Canadian government, because they have delayed too long,” he said.

Schumer said that if there is no bilateral agreement to reopen the border for vaccinated travelers announced by July 21, when the current closure agreement is set to end, American officials should change the definition of essential travel to include vacation travel, tourism and patronizing businesses. That redefinition would only apply to people crossing into the U.S. from Canada.

Schumer said there seems to be support for his position from the administration of President Joe Biden, and he said he had planed to speak with U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas later Tuesday to discuss the proposal. Other legislators with constituencies along the northern border, including Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylverville, have called on the Biden administration to unilaterally reopen the border to Canadian travelers in recent weeks as well.

The border between the two countries has been closed to most travelers since mid-March 2020 — only limited business traffic, shipping and medical crossings have been permitted at the 117 points of entry along what is the world’s longest undefended border between two nations.

The closure was initially presented as a temporary, mutual response to the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, when the U.S. saw cases spiking while Canada had relatively slow spread. But extensions to the closure have come in month-long increments, with the Canadian government typically announcing an extension to the closure days before the agreement is set to expire.

The senator said the closure has become a point of contention, with many caveats and rules that have made it a “less friendly” border for those who live near it. Boaters on Lake Ontario or the St. Lawrence River have reported being accosted by Canadian border patrol when crossing the international boundary in the water without anchoring or showing any intent to dock.

Additionally, tourism boating companies like Uncle Sam’s Boat Tours in Alexandria Bay have been banned from crossing into Canadian waters at any time, but Canadian tour boats are not prevented from entering American waters.

Schumer said the U.S. is now prepared to reopen the border, and has been for months. He said the American vaccination rate, especially in northern border states like New York, shows it would be safe to welcome vaccinated Canadians back into the country and to allow vaccinated Americans into Canada.

“If we can how have occupied football stadiums, theaters and restaurants for people who are vaccinated, we can certainly develop a plan for people to cross the border,” he said.

Schumer said he had a meeting with Canadian and American officials in May to talk about reopening the border, and asked for a phased plan that allows vaccinated people to travel in and out of both countries with little restriction. That plan was never developed, Schumer said, because of internal divisions within the ruling Liberal Party itself, and between the other parties in the Canadian Parliament. He said the U.S.-Canada border has become a polarizing issue in Canadian politics, and that has led to little movement on the issue from Canadian officials.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Monday that his government’s plans to totally reopen the U.S.-Canadian border will be announced in the coming weeks, and as of Monday, any Canadian citizen or permanent resident who is fully vaccinated with a Canadian-approved vaccine can forego a fortnight-long quarantine when returning to Canada from the U.S.

The Canadian vaccination rate has lagged behind the American rate, and as of July 4, only 36% of Canadians have received a full course of a COVID-19 vaccine. But 69% of Canadians have received at least one dose of a vaccine, indicating the rate of fully vaccinated people will rise in the coming weeks.

Schumer said he remains hopeful that a binational agreement to reopen the border may be put together before the July 21 deadline, but he isn’t counting on it.

“At other times, they have said they have said they’re going to do certain things, and they haven’t done it because of internal conflicts,” he said.


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