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Chelsea Tanis (left) and Eva Tanis (right) in their wedding photos. The couple had been navigating a cross-border relationship for years before getting married six months ago.The Globe and Mail

Chelsea and Eva Tanis last saw each other 10 days ago when Eva crossed the U.S.-Canada border from her home in Buffalo to help her wife fix a flat tire. They said their goodbyes and made plans to meet up again in a few days.

The couple had been navigating a cross-border relationship for years before getting married six months ago. They see each other every week on Chelsea’s days off from her job as medical lab technologist in the Toronto area and Eva’s time off from her career in law enforcement in upstate New York.

But their plans changed virtually overnight as the federal government tightened travel restrictions for Canadians amid a global pandemic and now readies to close the Canada-U.S. border to all but essential travel. “All of a sudden it was just like our world came to a screeching halt,” Chelsea, 35, said. “We really took for granted the fact that we could be there for each other at the drop of a hat if need be.”

The evolving travel restrictions have been a shock for Canadian tourists and snowbirds left scrambling to find a way home before the border is closed to non-essential travel, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said could come as early as Friday night.

But it is quickly turning into a nightmare for the roughly 900,000 Canadians living full-time in the United States and for cross-border families such as Chelsea and Eva Tanis who travel between the two countries on a regular basis.

Four Canadians crossed the Rainbow International Bridge at the border of Canada and the United States shortly after it was announced the mutual border would be closed to non-essential travel amid the spread of the coronavirus and shutdowns in both countries.

The Globe and Mail

Canadian and U.S. officials were still working Thursday to hammer out a deal on how the new border restrictions would work.

A U.S. industry source in touch with officials from both governments told The Globe and Mail that the travel ban likely will not apply to people who have to cross for work or business reasons, such as having jobs that take them to both sides of the border. The ban will effectively only apply to travel for leisure purposes. But the two countries are still working on the exact details, the source said.

One senior source in the Canadian government said the plan is for people with work visas to continue to be allowed to cross back and forth, but said the details are still in the works. The Globe is not identifying the sources because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said that the U.S. and Canada would soon issue further guidance to their citizens.

The swift change in cross-border policy has sent immigration lawyers scrambling. Cedric Shen, a Vancouver-born immigration lawyer now based in Los Angeles, said he was telling Canadian clients on U.S. work visas to stay put until it became clearer how the two countries planned to handle the coming border closing.

“I couldn’t give them any [detailed] legal advice because there’s no clear directive from [U.S.] Customs and Border Protection as to what constitutes essential or non-essential travel,” he said. “Everyone is flying blind right now.”

The border crackdown is particularly confusing for many Canadians living in the U.S. on a renewable three-year work visas known as TN status, which covers Canadian and Mexican citizens working in dozens of professional jobs included in the original North American free-trade agreement.

Most Canadians renew their TN status by returning to Canada and reapplying at an airport or land border crossing, which is typically faster and cheaper than applying for a visa extension through an employer. But Mr. Shen said it was not yet clear whether Canadians would be able to cross the border for visa renewals.

The massive shutdown of U.S. federal government offices as part of efforts to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus has also left cross-border business deals and U.S. immigration applications up in the air. The U.S. government announced this week it was temporarily shuttering local field offices and cancelling appointments for immigration interviews. U.S. consulates in Canada have also cancelled routine visa and immigration interviews until the end of May.

Kelly Midha was preparing to drive from Oakland, Calif., to Tijuana, Mexico, with her family to renew her TN status. Normally Ms. Midha, who grew up near Timmins, Ont., would have flown to Canada on a same-day return trip to renew the visa. But with a new job at Cisco Systems Inc. set to start on Monday, she didn’t want to take any chances. "I’ve already given my notice and everything,” she said. “I just want to make sure I’m prepared in every way possible.”

Other Canadians in the U.S. were making a mad dash to travel back home to pick up children who were studying in Canadian universities that have been shuttered. Some were rescheduling trips to see family, missing funerals for loved ones or frantically making arrangement to find caregivers for ailing parents back home.

Ali Mohammad spent hours on the phone Wednesday with airlines and Canadian officials trying to ensure his wife and two young children could cut their trip home to Toronto short and return to the San Francisco Bay Area before the border closed down.

Mr. Mohammad wasn’t sure how U.S. customs officials would deal with the fact that his children were born in the U.S., but his wife is a Canadian permanent resident travelling on a U.S. visa. “If they refuse her entry, what would happen?” said Mr. Mohammad, an engineer at Tesla originally from the Toronto area. “Are they refusing entry to U.S. citizens who are minors? It’s a very nerve-wracking situation.”

For Tommy Chan, a Canadian doing a medical fellowship in neurology at Stanford University in California, the impending border shutdown has cast a cloud over his immediate career plans. A large medical conference in Toronto next month where Dr. Chan was set to present his research was cancelled. During that trip, he had also scheduled job interviews back home in Toronto for when his fellowship ends in June. “It’s limiting my opportunities even to fly domestically or go to Canada for these interviews for the next steps in my career path,” he said.

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