In January 2022, foreign nationals crossing over land into the United States from Canada and Mexico for work or business will be required to be fully vaccinated.
The new rules from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will amend land-travel restrictions first imposed by the Trump administration in March 2020. Land-border crossings into the U.S. for work and business have generally been considered essential and allowed to proceed regardless of individuals' vaccination status, but that will change beginning early next year. Foreign nationals traveling to the United States for work and business, including those traveling on H, L and B visas, will be required to be vaccinated and must be ready to show proof of full COVID-19 vaccination to enter the United States.
"The essential travel restrictions applied only to land and sea borders," said Sheila Minihane, an immigration attorney in the Raleigh, N.C., office of Jackson Lewis. "Foreign nationals have been able to fly into the United States from Canada or Mexico if they met the COVID-19 testing requirements. In November, however, new COVID-19 vaccination and testing requirements will be in place for all air travel."
The Biden administration announced plans last month to rescind the COVID-19 travel bans imposed in 2020 and replace them with vaccination and testing requirements to enter the U.S. on November 8.
All non-U.S. air travelers will need to show proof of vaccination before boarding a flight and will also need to complete pre-departure testing within three days prior to their departure to the U.S. By contrast, foreign visitors crossing a land border should be ready to show proof of vaccination but will not need to show COVID-19 test results.
DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement that extending the deadline for required vaccination for business travelers and workers to sometime in early January 2022 will "provide ample time for essential travelers such as truckers, students, and healthcare workers to get vaccinated."
It is still not known exactly when in January the new U.S. rules will take effect, Minihane said.
She added that the U.S. is late to opening the northern and southern borders. The DHS announcement comes more than two months after Canada reopened its borders to vaccinated Americans, while Mexico never closed its northern border during the pandemic.
Confusion, Frustration at the Border
Andrew Wilson, a partner at Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman and co-leader of the firm's Immigration Practice in Buffalo, N.Y., said there has been confusion—especially for much of 2020—as to who could enter the U.S. and what activities qualified as essential.
In addition, the ability to fly over the border without restriction caused many to question the effectiveness of the policy. "Here at the border between Buffalo and Fort Erie, people have taken helicopter shuttles to fly into the U.S. to avoid the land-border travel ban," Wilson said. "People always ask how that makes sense. Why can someone fly into the U.S. but not drive across the border?"
He added that the opening of the land border with Canada and Mexico will not have a huge impact on cross-border business travel or for employers managing talent across the border because "you could always fly into the U.S. from Canada or Mexico, and those with approved U.S. work status could always enter by land."
On the other hand, foreign nationals who need to apply for E-1 or E-2 status to work in the U.S. are still being delayed by potentially six to 12 months because of visa scheduling delays at the U.S. Consulate in Toronto. "The border may be open, but that does not help if you need to first obtain an E visa for your proposed activities in the U.S.," Wilson said.
In addition, he noted, even though Canadians have a high vaccination rate, "for those who are not vaccinated, a job that requires them to travel or work in the U.S. will be a problem."
The biggest impact will be felt in the northern and southern border communities, experts agreed. "The land-border openings will positively affect local economies close to the border, as they rely on visitors from Canada and Mexico for their businesses," Wilson said. "Perhaps the biggest impact may be more psychological, in that Canadian and Mexican businesses will now recognize the U.S. as officially reopened for business once again."