To limit the spread of the coronavirus, the United States has entered into joint initiatives with Canada and Mexico to temporarily close its northern and southern borders for all nonessential travel, effective March 21, 2020, for a 30-day period. Essential commercial activity will not be impacted.

What Travel Is Restricted?

Only nonessential travel across the United States' Canadian and Mexican borders is restricted temporarily. "Nonessential" travel includes travel that is considered tourism or recreational in nature―such as sightseeing, recreation, gambling or attending cultural events. At this time, the border closure measure does not apply to air, freight rail or sea travel between the United States and Mexico, but does apply to passenger rail and ferry travel between the United States and Mexico.

Who Can Still Enter the United States from Canada or Mexico?

The following are deemed essential and, as such, explicitly exempt from the border restrictions:

  • U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents returning to the United States;
  • Individuals traveling for medical purposes (e.g., to receive medical treatment in the United States);
  • Individuals traveling to attend educational institutions;
  • Individuals traveling to work in the United States;
  • Individuals traveling for emergency response and public health purposes (e.g., government officials or emergency responders entering the United States to support federal, state, local, tribal or territorial government efforts to respond to COVID-19 or other emergencies);
  • Individuals engaged in lawful cross-border trade (e.g., truck drivers supporting the movement of cargo between the United States and Mexico);
  • Individuals engaged in official government travel or diplomatic travel;
  • Members of the U.S. armed forces, and spouses and children of members of the U.S. armed forces, returning to the United States; and individuals engaged in military-related travel or operations.
  • Other forms of travel as determined by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on a case by case basis

As such, foreign nationals who have proper visa and other immigration documents to enter the United States for education, employment or for business visit should be permitted to enter the United States from Canada or Mexico. However, because CBP officers have wide discretion to inspect entrants, foreign nationals should expect detailed questioning about their employment or business activities in the United States. It is strongly advisable that individuals entering the United States for permitted purpose carry required documents to confirm their immigration status as well as documents confirming the essential purpose of their entry to the United States.

Absent specific guidance, it is our understanding that CBP officers at the ports of entry may not process new applications for TN or L-1 admissions for individuals who were not previously granted such status. Such processing would be within the CBP's discretion and possibly subject to heightened scrutiny.

How Long Are the Travel Restrictions Going to Last?

These restrictions are temporary in nature and shall remain in effect until 11:59 p.m. EDT on April 20, 2020, at which point, the countries will review these measures.

What Can Travelers Expect at the U.S.-Canada or U.S.-Mexico Borders?

CBP notes that individuals subject to the order "will not be held in congregate areas for processing by CBP and instead will immediately be turned away from ports of entry." Those encountered between ports of entry after crossing the border "similarly will not be held in congregate areas for processing and instead, to the maximum extent feasible, will immediately be returned to their country of last transit." Additionally, CBP is encouraging people to exercise caution by avoiding unnecessary contact with others.

Lastly, U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents and the other travelers who are exempt from this action will receive the same processing, evaluation and potential CDC medical screening that all entrants undergo at other U.S. ports of entry.

For Further Information

If you have any questions about this Alert, please contact any of the attorneys in the Immigration Law Group, any member of the COVID-19 Strategy Team or the attorney in the firm with whom you are regularly in contact.

Disclaimer: This Alert has been prepared and published for informational purposes only and is not offered, nor should be construed, as legal advice. For more information, please see the firm's full disclaimer.