Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

As Europe Reopens for Travel, North America Is Staying Shut

Scientists say it’s safe for vaccinated people to travel, but the politics of fear is keeping borders closed.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy, a visiting professor at Western Washington University, and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations., and , an economics professor at the University of Toronto.
Empty security gates to the U.S. check-in area at Pearson International Airport in Toronto
Canadian Air Transport Security Authority staff wait at the empty security gates to the U.S. check-in area at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on April 18, 2020. Zou Zheng via Getty Images

North America invented 21st-century borders. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which led the United States to briefly shut its borders with Canada and Mexico, officials from the three countries collaborated to build what they called the “border of the future.” They worried that growing public fears over terrorism would slam the door on the trade and travel that were vital to the continent’s prosperity. Those fears, they hoped, could be assuaged by modern borders that would safeguard the movement of goods and lawful travelers, while adding layers of intelligence and security to keep out terrorists, criminals, and contraband. Other countries soon followed. The current global travel regime—including secure biometric passports, advance passenger screening, and fingerprint checks—was pioneered in North America two decades ago.

Few would have predicted that, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, North American leaders would embrace indefinite border closures and reject technological solutions. While the European Union is gradually opening up to vaccinated travelers from outside the bloc and has introduced digital proof of vaccine status and other health security measures, North American politicians have hunkered down. Canada and the United States recently extended their land border closure until at least July 21. The U.S. border with Mexico remains largely closed. At the G-7 meeting in Cornwall, England, in June, U.S. President Joe Biden refused to reciprocate the moves by Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and others to welcome American tourists. Instead, he announced the formation of an “expert working group” with the European Union, Britain, Canada, and Mexico—a sure sign that he feels little urgency to reopen U.S. borders.

North America invented 21st-century borders. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which led the United States to briefly shut its borders with Canada and Mexico, officials from the three countries collaborated to build what they called the “border of the future.” They worried that growing public fears over terrorism would slam the door on the trade and travel that were vital to the continent’s prosperity. Those fears, they hoped, could be assuaged by modern borders that would safeguard the movement of goods and lawful travelers, while adding layers of intelligence and security to keep out terrorists, criminals, and contraband. Other countries soon followed. The current global travel regime—including secure biometric passports, advance passenger screening, and fingerprint checks—was pioneered in North America two decades ago.

Few would have predicted that, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, North American leaders would embrace indefinite border closures and reject technological solutions. While the European Union is gradually opening up to vaccinated travelers from outside the bloc and has introduced digital proof of vaccine status and other health security measures, North American politicians have hunkered down. Canada and the United States recently extended their land border closure until at least July 21. The U.S. border with Mexico remains largely closed. At the G-7 meeting in Cornwall, England, in June, U.S. President Joe Biden refused to reciprocate the moves by Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and others to welcome American tourists. Instead, he announced the formation of an “expert working group” with the European Union, Britain, Canada, and Mexico—a sure sign that he feels little urgency to reopen U.S. borders.

The continued restrictions are a striking about-face on a continent where business and political leaders have argued for decades that seamless trade and travel would bolster the economies of all three countries. Instead, border restrictions have been broadly popular during the pandemic. While vaccinations have now led to the easing of internal restrictions, pleas from airlines and tourist-dependent businesses to reopen borders have been disregarded. The plight of separated families and foreign residents stranded on expired visas has been ignored. While North America’s borders will certainly reopen to some degree as vaccinations proceed, possibly as soon as this summer, long and costly border closures are no longer unthinkable. Instead, they have become an easily deployed tool to reassure a scared public.

The shift is even more striking in Canada than in the United States or Mexico, as it goes against decades of official policy dedicated to keeping the U.S.-Canadian border open. After 9/11, Ottawa rushed to prevent a closure of border traffic, which would have isolated Canada’s economy and disrupted its supply chains. Successive Canadian governments have lobbied against protectionist measures and carved out exemptions for Canadians from U.S. passport requirements. But in reaction to COVID-19—and to the early mismanagement of the pandemic south of the border under then-U.S. President Donald Trump, when U.S. coronavirus cases soared—much of the country turned inward.

Biden has promised that he will not issue vaccine passports for Americans, complicating his ability to work with other countries to introduce secure, mutually recognized health documents to ease travel.

In Ontario—the largest province, home to about 40 percent of Canada’s population—Conservative Premier Doug Ford has gone to war with the Liberal federal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to keep the borders closed. In good part, that’s to deflect from Ford’s own abysmal handling of the pandemic. Ontario has somehow managed to have the likely longest lockdown in all of North America and the longest school closures in Canada while simultaneously having worse than average pandemic outcomes. Ford decided to scapegoat the international border—and, by extension, foreigners—for his province’s failings. In an unprecedented move, he ran attack ads accusing the federal government of being lax on the border. And rather than pushing back, the Liberals responded with a slew of additional border measures, including multiple rounds of testing, hotel quarantines, and even a call for neighbors to snitch on recently returned travelers who break the rules. With a Canadian national election likely this fall and an Ontario provincial election scheduled for next June, politicians at both levels want to be seen as “tough on the border.”

The U.S. approach has been little different. Widespread vaccination has brought COVID-19 case numbers down sharply, and most states have completely reopened their economies. Last week, New York’s Madison Square Garden hosted a packed house of more than 15,000 screaming, vaccinated fans for a Foo Fighters concert. But the U.S. government is still blocking the entry of most travelers from Europe, Brazil, China, and India; Mexicans and Canadians are permitted to fly to the United States but not to drive across the land borders. Unlike Canada, the United States has made no exceptions for family members who want to cross the land borders.

Biden faces his own political pressures to slow-walk on border reopening. One of the few popular things Trump did in his handling of COVID-19 was to shut off most flights from China in early February 2020, when the World Health Organization and most Western countries were still resisting travel restrictions. With Trump gone, Republicans have been slamming the administration over the large number of asylum-seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexican border. Biden has taken a series of steps to restore some due process for asylum-seekers but has kept in place Title 42, the Trump-era order that allows border agents to summarily return border crossers to Mexico on health grounds. Verifying vaccine status is also a political minefield in the United States; many Republican states have barred businesses and public institutions from even inquiring about an individual’s vaccine status. Biden has promised that he will not issue vaccine passports for Americans, complicating his ability to work with other countries to introduce secure, mutually recognized health documents to ease travel.

Like the Trudeau government, the Biden administration has promised, as a U.S. State Department spokesperson said this week, to “be guided by the science, by the best medical and expert advice.” Unfortunately, that appears to be an untruth—neither government is listening to its own scientists. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has declared that vaccinated individuals pose little threat to themselves or others, and they should be free to travel internationally without testing or quarantine. In Canada, the expert advisory panel to the ministry of health has recommended allowing any fully vaccinated traveler to enter Canada with nothing but a precautionary COVID-19 test.

All of this sets a worrying precedent. The close collaboration after 9/11 sent a clear signal that open, efficient borders were a top priority in North America, even as many were calling for severe restrictions to respond to the threat of terrorism. The pandemic shutdown, in contrast, has shown that politicians are now willing to restrict borders not just for reasons of public health or national security but for political gain. A future U.S. president, when faced with a natural disaster, pandemic, or terrorist attack, may well seek to calm fears or project strength by announcing another border closure. And perhaps not just to travelers, but to commercial traffic as well. This would be devastating to both Canada and Mexico, which send some three-quarters of their exports to the United States.

North America needs to get back to cooperation on border management. Washington, Ottawa, and Mexico City should immediately establish protocols that allow much greater freedom of movement across borders while assuaging legitimate public health concerns—the protocols required aren’t rocket science, as other countries opening up to travel have shown. North America has long been at the forefront of building borders that are both open and secure. The COVID-19 shutdowns must remain an exception and not become the rule.

Edward Alden is a columnist at Foreign Policy, the Ross distinguished visiting professor at Western Washington University, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of Failure to Adjust: How Americans Got Left Behind in the Global Economy. Twitter: @edwardalden

Ambarish Chandra is an economics professor at the University of Toronto. Twitter: @AChandra_TO

More from Foreign Policy

An aerial display of J-10 fighter jets of China’s People’s Liberation.

The World Doesn’t Want Beijing’s Fighter Jets

Snazzy weapons mean a lot less if you don’t have friends.

German infantrymen folllow a tank toward Moscow in the snow in, 1941 during Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union. The image was published in. Signal, a magazine published by the German Third Reich. Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

Panzers, Beans, and Bullets

This wargame explains how Russia really stopped Hitler.

19th-century Chinese rebel Hong Xiuquan and social media influencer Addison Rae.

America’s Collapsing Meritocracy Is a Recipe for Revolt

Chinese history shows what happens when an old system loses its force.

Afghan militia gather with their weapons to support Afghanistan security forces.

‘It Will Not Be Just a Civil War’

Afghanistan’s foreign minister on what may await his country after the U.S. withdrawal.