Montana Border Towns Squeezed By International COVID Restrictions and Southern Crisis

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Posted: Apr 09, 2021 9:00 AM

HI-LINE, Mont. — "Put your mask on!" the Canadian border officer barked at our car when we pulled up to the Sweet Grass Port of Entry by mistake after we missed the exit we were supposed to take. It was day two of Rep. Matt Rosendale's (R-MT) team's trip and I had been invited to tag along to see firsthand the "impact of the Biden Admin’s policies on the state."

U.S. Customs and Border Protection told Rosendale's team most of their traffic before the COVID-19 restrictions that were not purely trade were Canadians going south to shop in towns like Havre. Now with only "essential travel" being the primary reason to cross a land port of entry, which has been in place since March 2020, it has had a negative impact on Montana's border towns. The "essential travel" only along the northern and southern border was extended once again to April 21.

"It's had a huge impact in this community, there's no question about it. Businesses are suffering," Hill County Commissioner Mark Peterson told Rosendale during a meeting on Monday. "We just need to get our governments to talk a little bit more and work together."

Rosendale told the commissioners it does not make sense to have a "porous" southern border for illegal immigration, COVID-19 cases and all, while still having the northern border in lockdown as if the country was on day one of the pandemic.

"Our tourism collections are down by between 30-50 percent depending on the business we are talking about. We saw little to no Canadian tourism in the past year along with a decrease in people stopping on their way to Glacier because of the east gate closure," Julea Robbins, executive director for the Havre Chamber of Commerce, told Townhall.

"While most of our local businesses have made it through the pandemic, almost every business has suffered loss of revenue and we have seen a couple businesses close their doors for good. The pandemic has been hard on our local economy but we are trying to bounce back," Robbins added. "Just in the past 2 months, we have seen 5 new businesses announced in Havre so things are starting to look up. We are hopeful that the border will open this summer and that we can regain our lost tourism. We are very thankful for the reinstalment of the full-time Amtrak train, this will surely help as well."

In Sweet Grass, I'm told multiple businesses had closed down since "nonessential" travel has been banned. Families with members in both Canada and the United States have had to host weddings right at the border fencing.

The heaviest restrictions on reentry have come from the Canadian side, as exemplified by our interaction with the border guard from earlier. For a land port of entry, Canadians are required to have a negative COVID-19 test, enter a 14-day quarantine, and take another test on day 10. No exemptions are given even if a traveler is vaccinated.

The COVID-19 restrictions and their effects are not the only recent problems facing the small towns. The ongoing crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border is affecting manpower and resources in the north. I can report needed assets have been redirected south to deal with the influx of illegal foot traffic. Rosendale and his team promised to get those issues fixed.

During the same meeting with the Hill County Commissioners, they expressed concern to Rosendale about how the southern crisis could draw manpower away from Border Patrol to the point where it severely compromises northern border security. Rosendale told them his talks with Border Patrol said, as of right now, they are well-staffed but he added that could change if the apprehension projections from CBP are met or exceeded this calendar year.

Rosendale said one of his biggest concerns with the border crisis was when it was reported in March the Biden administration was considering flying illegal immigrants apprehended to northern states so they could be processed there to help alleviate the capacity issues down south.

"Right now I do not believe that it is going to happen anytime in the near future, but as we've seen, there's a lot of pressure that continues to build on that southern border and as that pressure builds...the [Biden] Administration is going to have to start making some decisions about where they're going to place these people and how they're going to process them...I'm still very concerned that Montana might become one of their options," Rosendale explained.

On Thursday, CBP announced for the month of March they had "encountered more than 172,000 persons attempting entry along the Southwest border. This total represented a 71 percent increase over February 2021." At least 18,890 unaccompanied minors were taken into custody, furthering highlighting the dramatic increase in illegal foot traffic among vulnerable groups of immigrants.

I left Rosedale's team to head back home after spending two days with them. In that time, we covered over 400 miles of Big Sky Country, showing the logistical requirements needed for being the sole representative of such a large state in the House. Rosedale takes it all in stride but knows the list of challenges for his state go far beyond the border and COVID restrictions. By the time I left, his team was headed to the Veterans Affairs hospital in Fort Harrison, near Helena, about another 200 miles from the Sweet Grass Port of Entry.