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Secretary of State Blinken virtually 'visits' Mexico and Canada as borders remain restricted

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 2/26/2021 Courtney Subramanian and Lauren Villagran, USA TODAY
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WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken virtually met with officials in Mexico and Canada in his first trip "abroad" Friday, raising questions about when the three countries will lift restrictions on "non-essential" travel at the borders put in place nearly a year ago because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The nation's top diplomat took a virtual tour of the Paso del Norte bridge – a crucial link between the downtowns of El Paso in Texas and Ciudad Juárez in Mexico – before "crossing" into to the neighboring country to meet with Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Marcelo Ebrard and Secretary of Economy Tatiana Clouthier  

a sign on a pole: The U.S. and Texas flags fly near the U.S.-Mexico border on February 24, 2021 in Brownsville, Texas. © John Moore, Getty Images The U.S. and Texas flags fly near the U.S.-Mexico border on February 24, 2021 in Brownsville, Texas.

Blinken concluded his tour by highlighting the port of entry as the "fourth largest manufacturing hub in all of North America," pointing out that 1.3 million people crossed the bridge last year.  

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"There are many historical ties between residents in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. They're neighbors," he said. "In some ways, it's one binational community." 

But while the administration is taking a "new approach" to regional migration, the secretary urged those seeking to cross the border to be patient. 

"To anyone thinking about taking that journey, our message is: Don't do it," he said. "President Biden is committed to reforming our immigration system and ensuring safe, orderly and humane processing at our border. Those things will take time." 

In brief public remarks before his private meeting with Blinken, Ebrard said his country received “with empathy” the administration’s approach on U.S.-Mexico relations and is happy that the United States rejoined the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization.

Blinken  later met with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Marc Garneau. President Joe Biden met virtually with Trudeau on Tuesday in his first bilateral meeting, but the two leaders made no mention of plans to restore cross-border operations.

"Now is not the time for our two nations to turn inward," Garneau said at the start of the meeting, emphasizing the importance of maintaining North American supply chains. 

Like Garneau, Blinken – whose family moved to Paris when he was nine – spoke partly in French.

The Department of Homeland Security announced last week that the United States, Canada and Mexico agreed to keep their land borders locked down through at least March 21, which marks the one-year anniversary of initial border closures over COVID-19. 

The closures, which apply to all land and sea borders, have been extended every month since. Technically, Americans can still fly to either country, though Canada has made that option more difficult. 

People traveling from the U.S. to Canada are required to prove they are traveling for essential reasons and must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. Canada also requires a negative COVID-19 test for those traveling by plane. 

'US leadership has been sorely missed.' Trudeau, Biden seek to repair alliance in first meeting

More: US borders with Canada and Mexico to remain restricted until March 21, marking full year of closures

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Families and small businesses impacted

The border restrictions have been devastating for binational communities, dividing families whose lives bridge an international border and hurting businesses dependent on the cross-border traffic.

The Trump administration billed the restrictions, which took effect at midnight March 21, 2020, as a ban on “non-essential” travel to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In practice,  it effectively prevented Mexican nationals holding tourist visas from crossing.

In cities such as El Paso and Laredo, Texas; Las Cruces, New Mexico; Nogales, Arizona; and Calexico, California, the policy has left shops empty of the Mexican customers who often buy wholesale to sell in retail shops back home. The effects ripple out to communities beyond the border that have historic ties to Mexico, from Phoenix to Albuquerque and Dallas.

Mexico is the United States' second largest trading partner in goods and second largest export market for goods. Two-way trades in goods totaled $538.1 billion last year, according to a fact sheet provided by the State Department. 

Families have been divided, too, as relatives without U.S. citizenship in cities from Tijuana to Mexicali, Juárez to Nuevo Laredo, are unable to come north.

“People have their grandmothers on the other side of the border, their brothers and sisters and best friends,” said Joe Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas-El Paso. “It’s a place where you have a really close binational community, where there are strong personal bonds.”

The lack of a public plan for normalizing crossings at U.S. land ports of entry has raised concern among Democrats and Republicans alike, some of whom have been asking for months for a path forward.

In October, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and representatives in Southwest border states demanded the Department of Homeland Security release guidelines for returning the nation’s border crossings to normal operations. 

Acknowledging the “difficult balance that DHS must strike between protecting its officers and the public against COVID-19,” the bipartisan group charged that DHS “has provided little public insight into how it weighed the costs and benefits of these extended travel restrictions.”

“DHS has not publicly articulated a plan for returning to normal operations,” according to the letter, “or set forth any benchmarks that must be reached before the travel restrictions can be partially relaxed or completely lifted."

The letter was signed by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., among others.

Blinken tries the local flavor

The secretary of state's first foreign trip is usually a symbolic jaunt marked by pomp and circumstance, and the state department tried to infuse that into the virtual visit. 

"I guess the benefits of doing the virtual visit are no jetlag," Blinken joked more than once. "On the other hand, no frequent flyer miles either, so it’s a little bit of a tradeoff." 

After taking questions from Students on Ice, a Canadian group that leads educational expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic, Blinken listened to two women perform Inuit throat singing. He invited them to sing their lullaby to his one-year-old and two-year-old the next time they’re in Washington.

Asked by a student what advice he would give to his 22-year-old self if he could go back in time, Blinken shared that despite his early interest in foreign policy, he also had a vague ambition that he could have a career in music.

“My current self would probably say, `Forget about it. The talent wasn’t there,’” he said. “But that only came with hindsight.”

Contributing: Jayme Deerwester, Deirdre Shesgreen and Maureen Groppe.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Secretary of State Blinken virtually 'visits' Mexico and Canada as borders remain restricted

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