WASHINGTON — 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 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% of its exports and about 18% 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% of its oil exports go to the U.S.
Mexico responded cautiously to news reports 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.”
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% of those arrested were from Mexico; many of the rest came from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Cuba and Brazil.
The situation at Canada’s border came into focus Monday when Trudeau said 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 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.