VANCOUVER -- Birgit Heinbach's American husband Ian Geddes crossed back into Washington state in mid-March. They never imagined they'd end up trapped on different sides of the border.

But on March 21, the Canadian and U.S. governments made the unprecedented move of banning non-essential travel between the two countries for at least 30 days.

“It’s very hard,” said Heinbach while seated at a picnic table at the Peace Arch border crossing. “He’s really just across the border.”

Geddes lives in Blaine, while Heinbach is a permanent resident in Canada. The couple married on Nov. 5, 2019, after years of waiting to be together, and have been working to get Heinbach a U.S. green card.

“We got married because we want to help each other, and stick with each other, and support each other until death parts us,” she said. "If one of us would get ill, we’d have nobody to look after each other.”

Heinbach is a physiotherapist at a seniors' care home in Delta. She lives in B.C. with her teenage son, but Geddes is alone with just the company of his dogs.

“The isolation is the hardest part,” he said in a WhatsApp video chat. "It’s extremely difficult for everybody, but to know that my wife is 10 minutes away and I can’t see her is pretty tough.”

“Unfortunately I have dozens of clients right now who are caught in this limbo land,” said immigration attorney Len Saunders. "It’s like having the Berlin Wall up again.”

Sanders said a lot of his clients were “blindsided” by the move. "Because the borders closed so quickly,” he explained, "they’ve been left in a situation where they didn’t have a choice of maybe staying in the other country.”

He suggests both governments should be making exceptions for couples currently navigating the immigration process. “These are individuals who have been waiting months sometimes up to a year for their green card to be processed,” he said. "A lot of these people, they don’t want to cross back and forth daily, they’re quite happy to quarantine for a couple weeks or even maybe stay for a couple months to ride this out.”

The Canada Border and Services Agency told CTV News in a statement that exceptions "will be made for immediate family members of a Canadian citizen or of a permanent resident as long as their travel is determined to be essential.” The decision is at the discretion of the border services officer.

Heinbach has tried to cross the border already but was turned away.

“I want to follow strictly with what our government says to do,” she said, “but I think there’s some situations where it would be lovely to have an exception.”

Ian Geddes and Birgit Heinbach

The CBSA lists essential travel as:

  • Crossing the border for work and study;
  • Economic services and supply chains;
  • Critical infrastructure support;
  • Health (immediate medical care), safety and security;
  • Shopping for essential goods such as medication or goods necessary to preserve the health and safety of an individual or family; and
  • Other activities at the discretion of the BSO.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol lists essential travel as:

  • 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 (e.g., individuals working in the farming or agriculture industry who must travel between the United States and Mexico in furtherance of such work);
  • 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 the 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.