Rob Gillies and Elliot Spagat
The United States and Canada agreed Wednesday to temporarily close their shared border to nonessential travel to confront the coronavirus pandemic, bringing a halt to tourism and family visits but leaving the flow of trade intact.
The announcement by President Donald Trump came as his administration prepared to immediately return to Mexico all people caught illegally crossing the southern U.S. border. Trump said he would announce that step "very soon," perhaps as early as Wednesday.
These combined actions would further isolate the United States, affecting two borders that have been treated in starkly different ways by the Trump administration.
The flow of travelers on the northern border, the world's longest between two nations, has been relatively open. By comparison, Trump has made clamping down on immigration, both legal and illegal, across the southern border the cornerstone of his presidency.
The Canadian restrictions, unlike those under consideration with Mexico, were agreed upon mutually by both governments.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said travelers will no longer be able permitted to cross the border for recreation or tourism, but that essential travel will continue.
"It is critical that we preserve supply chains between both countries," Trudeau said. "These supply chains ensure that food, fuel and life saving medicines reach people on both sides of the border."
Trudeau made his comments in front of his residence where he is self-isolating after his wife tested positive for the virus.
Trump tweeted that the restrictions on the Canadian border will not affect trade between allies eager to maintain their vital economic relationship. Canada relies on the U.S. for 75 percent of its exports and about 18 percent of American exports go to Canada.
Truck drivers and Canadian snowbirds, who live in the U.S. for part of the year and are returning to Canada, are among those exempted. Completely closing the border would cause severe damage to two economies so closely integrated. Much of Canada's food supply comes from or via the U.S., and 98 percent of its oil exports go to the U.S.
The United States has reported about 6,500 coronavirus cases and at least 119 deaths, compared with about 600 cases and eight deaths in Canada. Mexico has reported 93 cases and no deaths, though only about 1,000 people have been tested. The administration sees Mexico's efforts to check the spread of the virus as among the weakest in the Americas and is framing the anticipated border move as a way to pressure Mexico to respond more aggressively to the outbreak.
For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks while those with more severe illness may take three weeks to six weeks to recover.
Mexico responded cautiously to news reports that the U.S. may turn back people who illegally cross into the U.S. The Mexican foreign minister said Washington had not shared a "formal proposal" and, if it did, then Mexico would respond "in defense of its interests, considering, among other things, public health and human rights."
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, when asked about the U.S. plan at his daily news conference, said he would be briefed by Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard, who spoke on Tuesday with Trump's secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
"We have a very good relationship — I emphasize this — with the U.S. government, a very good relationship with the U.S. ambassador to Mexico," Lopez Obrador said.
The U.S. proposal would apply to anyone who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border between ports of entry, including those who claim asylum. It would amount to one of his most aggressive attempts by Trump to curtail illegal immigration.
The Border Patrol averaged about 1,000 arrests a day in February. During the U.S. budget year that ended in September, only 20 percent of those arrested were from Mexico; many of the rest came from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Cuba and Brazil.
For his border move, Trump would rely on a law says the president can deny entry to people or reject cargo if the U.S. surgeon general determines there is a "serious danger" of bringing a communicable disease to the United States. Trump said he was not planning a full shutdown of the U.S. border with Mexico but that the powers he will invoke give him "great latitude."
Homeland Security Department spokeswoman Heather Swift said "all options are on the table."
The situation at Canada's border came into focus Monday when Trudeau said that he would close the country's borders to anyone who was not a Canadian citizen, an American or a permanent resident. Even then, those people are required to self-isolate for 14 days on arrival.
Many in Canada criticized the decision to give Americans an exemption, including British Columbia Health Minister Adrian Dix, citing the surge in cases in neighboring Washington state.
Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said then that the border is vital to the daily life to people on both sides.
"Nearly 200,000 people cross that border every day, and that border and that traffic that goes across that border is literally a lifeline for both the Canadians and the Americans on both sides of that border,'' Freeland said.