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Families separated by Canadian border closure 'beg and plead' for reopening
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Families separated by Canadian border closure 'beg and plead' for reopening

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Border Opening

Rep. Chris Jacobs calls for the opening of the U.S.-Canada border as he stands in front of family members who are separated from their loved ones, during a press conference at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, Sunday, June 6, 2021.

April Parkhill had planned to get married more than a year ago. Instead, the 29-year-old Lewiston woman and her Canadian fiancé postponed their wedding three times in hopes the border would reopen.

On Sunday, Parkhill joined Rep. Chris Jacobs and other Western New Yorkers separated from Canadian relatives by the pandemic at a press conference and rally meant to signal that families are losing patience with the repeated border-closure extensions.

Standing in front of the near-empty Lewiston-Queenston Bridge Plaza, Jacobs called on politicians on both sides of the border to make accommodations for cross-national families and property owners. American relatives of Canadian citizens are allowed to Canada, but only if they provide extensive documentation and remain in the country for 15 days – a requirement many say is incompatible with work, school and child care schedules.

“Our lives are just in limbo,” Parkhill said. “We’re sitting around waiting and waiting for something to happen.”

Sunday’s rally came amidst growing pressure from border-state residents, politicians and business-owners to reopen travel between the U.S. and Canada. Both Democrat and Republican members of New York’s congressional delegation have called on the Biden administration to negotiate a plan for loosening border restrictions, at least among vaccinated travelers.

In May, retired Florida magazine publisher John Adams, who owns a home near Vancouver, began airing television spots in New York, Michigan and Washington – and later, in Ontario and British Columbia – urging both countries to immediately reopen the border.

He also partnered with organizers and members of the Facebook group Families Are Essential, including Western New Yorker Marcella Picone, who helped coordinate Sunday’s rally near the Peace Bridge and press conference at the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge plaza.

In his remarks, Jacobs, whose mother-in-law is Canadian, stopped short of asking for the border to reopen to the general public. Instead, he said, American and Canadian officials should work together to carve out new, more relaxed travel regulations for both separated families and people who own property on the opposite side of the border. He also called on the Biden administration to release more information about its negotiations with Canadian officials, whom he accused of extending closures without clear “rationale or metrics.”

Rep. Brian Higgins and Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, all Democrats, have issued similar demands.

“We will not accept just another arbitrary extension with no metrics attached,” Jacobs said.

Even a partial relaxation of the current rules would help families divided by the border, said Shannon Harder, whose husband Neal lives in New Brunswick. A Canadian citizen, Neal returned north in February 2020 after he was unable to renew his expiring U.S. visa. He left three children – Teagen, 14, and Brynn and Caden, both 11 – behind in Attica.

Harder and the children had planned to visit often. But the Canadian requirement that visitors quarantine for 14 days made that difficult. On her most recent attempt to visit, in January, Harder said she was turned back because the reason for her visit was “nonessential.”

“There’s never any end date,” Harder said. “We never have any hope for the near future.”

Parkhill, meanwhile, has given up on guessing when the border might reopen. For the past 15 months, she has lived alone in the two-bedroom apartment that she and her fiance, Renil Amin, had meant to share. They video chat about once a week. More than that is difficult to schedule: Parkhill works days as the adult education coordinator at Buffalo City Mission, and Amin works evenings for the public transit agency in Burlington.

Parkhill last saw him in mid-March 2020 when she sat in his family’s living room watching the news that Toronto would shut down schools to combat a strange new disease. The intervening year, she said, has proved “so isolating, so lonely.”

“These families have been separated for so long,” Picone, the organizer, said. “We are begging and pleading (with) our governments to let us reunite again.”

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