While nonessential border crossings have come to a stop at the Pembina port of entry, commercial trucks can line up for a mile while waiting to cross. Mike Swehla often waits with them, as he takes Canadian citizens across the border.
Swehla runs Grand Forks-based S & S Taxi, and his company has never been busier. Swehla and another S & S driver ferry Canadian travelers and snowbirds just across the border, then turn around and come back. Both countries agreed to close the border to nonessential travel in March 2020, and have extended the travel ban multiple times since then.
It’s something they would not have done before the pandemic, when Canadians could simply use their own cars to enter the United States, then return home. In 30 years, Swehla said he has never had to cross the border--until the pandemic put these travelers in his taxi.
“They want to come back, my list is pretty heavy,” Swehla told the Herald. “I go every day this week, then I have Monday off.”
Business has been good for S & S, a trip either to or from the border costs $200, but it has been a balancing act for the drivers, as they need to pick up their regularly-scheduled clients in Grand Forks. The trip takes about two and a half hours, depending on road conditions. S & S has six drivers, but only two do border runs, as they are familiar with the process.
“Sometimes it gets to be ‘how am I going to get back in time for all my regular time calls,’ you know?” Swehla said.
And that process is unique. Usually, drivers go to Grand Forks International Airport to pick up their Canadian customers. From there they head to the border and cross over 25 feet into Canada. A last-chance turnaround just before the border has been blocked off by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, making crossing over a necessity.
Once in the country, the taxi stops and the passenger walks about 100 feet to the Canada Border Services Agency checkpoint. The drivers then make a U-turn on a frontage road and come straight back to the U.S. checkpoint, where they are questioned by CBP officers. Once cleared, they head back to Grand Forks. It’s a process they have gotten down to an “in-and-out” science, and one that doesn’t require a passport.
According to CBP Chief Matt Gruenberg at the Pembina port of entry, U.S. citizens returning to the country by a land crossing can do so by showing a driver’s license and birth certificate.
“You have to prove your citizenship one way or another,” Gruenberg said, and added he’s glad to see regular passenger vehicles instead of a long line of commercial trucks.
Reentering the country usually goes pretty smoothly, Swehla said. There’s the usual questions: ‘what are you up to?’ and ‘where are you going?’ but some border officials have come to recognize Swehla and sometimes offer a “Hey how are you doing today, Mike?”
For Canadian travelers, returning home means having COVID-19 test results three days prior to entering the country. They take another test at the border, then quarantine at home for two weeks. On Feb. 4 the Canadian government limited returning citizens to four airports: Toronto, Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver, with a mandatory three-day stay at a hotel to monitor for COVID symptoms.
An April 10 CBC report noted the hotel stay, which travelers pay for out of pocket, has prompted many to fly to near-border cities, where they can be driven across. The Canadian government considers travel services to be essential, and there is no hotel requirement for those either walking or driving across the border, which has boosted business for taxi companies in border states.
Manitobans Wayne and Colleen Deslauriers were headed back to Winnipeg on Tuesday, April 13. They met Swehla at Grand Forks’ airport, after driving up from Minneapolis. They were in the U.S. to visit their daughter in Atlanta, who had recently had a baby. The couple said it’s “great, fine” returning to Canada by taxi, and they get to bypass the hotel stay and the expense of flying home.
Colleen Deslauriers, who was wearing a UND Fighting Hawks sweatshirt she picked up at a gas station after forgetting her coat in Atlanta, said they turned to the internet to find a way back.
“We found out about Mike on Facebook, through someone who had done that,” she said, and added she had never heard of the Fighting Hawks, and will give the shirt to her son.
The couple had friends drop off their car at the border. They can’t go home with anyone else because of quarantine restrictions. Once home they can't leave their yard, she said.
And when Swehla isn’t running Canadian snowbirds to the border, or arranging service for other clients around town in his Chrysler Town and Country taxi, he tools around in a 68’ Camaro. He told the Herald he did the mechanical work himself, and at a recent visit to the taxi company’s office, popped open the hood to show off the car’s immaculate engine.
“I’m a big block guy,” he said.