The words on a handmade sign spoke eloquently: “Love is not tourism.”
Last Sunday, a wedding — one of many — took place at busy Peace Arch Historical State Park in Blaine, uniting a couple who had been separated by a closed border for more than six months. Allyssa Howard drove north from the Everett area, where she has lived for the past four years; Sara Morosan came from her home in Chilliwack, British Columbia, an 80-minute drive east of Vancouver. Both wore lace dresses — one black, one white — with black lace-up boots; both of their faces glowed.
Howard and Morosan are just one of many cross-border couples whose plans for a life together have been affected by new pandemic regulations — and who came together, appropriately, at the Peace Arch. The park is unique along the U.S.-Canada border, in that it is a place where people from either side of the border can gather together. The border itself officially closed to nonessential travel in March (essentially banning tourism), and the Canadian side of the park closed in June. But the gatherings at the Peace Arch have continued; a peaceful loophole.
And the weddings there have multiplied. “It’s happening every day, literally dozens of couples at the border, people from around the country,” said Len Saunders, an immigration attorney in the border town of Blaine. He noted that he’s doing a “huge business in spousal green cards — never in this capacity before.”
Park ranger Rickey Blank, manager of the Peace Arch Historical State Park, concurred. Pre-COVID, he said in an email, “weddings between folks across the border” might happen once or twice a week; now it’s 20 to 25 weddings weekly. (Blank said that couples wishing to marry at the park should contact park staff in advance — impromptu weddings are discouraged — and expect to follow all current social-distancing guidelines. While getting married at the park with an officiant and a small handful of people is possible, the parks department is not allowing larger weddings [with tents, tables and such] at any of its state parks. “This is not only a public health concern during a pandemic, but also these activities are harming the park’s landscaping and natural resources,” said Anna Gill, communications director with the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission.)
Howard, who is 34, and Morosan, 28, met online six years ago, immediately drawn together by shared interests, particularly in Japanese animation. “We just started talking about the same kind of nerdy stuff,” remembered Howard of their instant connection. The two met in person for the first time in 2015, when Morosan flew to Minneapolis, where Howard then lived. Love blossomed, and Howard found a new job in Everett and moved west in 2016. It wasn’t an easy decision — “the first time moving away from my family,” Howard said in a telephone interview — but it meant the two would be separated only by a drive of a few hours and an open border.
For several years, they saw each other once or twice a month on weekends: Morosan would take the Greyhound bus to Everett, or Howard would drive to Chilliwack. The miles were many, but so were the rewards: By the time of the Vancouver Pride Festival in August 2019, the two were engaged, with a wedding planned for October of this year.
And then the pandemic hit, and the border slammed closed. Neither woman could cross the border to see the other; visiting a non-relative loved one is considered nonessential travel. (There are exceptions for travel into Canada for immediate family, but a fiancée does not qualify.) The October plans for a bigger wedding were put on hold. “At that point, we thought, ‘Let’s wait until the borders open,’” Howard said, but that day didn’t come.
“It was very hard,” said Morosan, who works in a grocery store. “I had plenty of nights and days when I felt very depressed and I felt defeated because I couldn’t see her, I couldn’t drive to the border, she couldn’t come here. I know she was only two hours away, but it’s still distance and it still hurt.”
After Howard lost her job as a bus driver, the two realized their best option was to go ahead and get married, so Howard could come to Canada and begin the process of becoming a permanent resident — and the couple could be together. They were encouraged and informed by Faces of Advocacy/Advocacy for Family Reunification at the Canadian Border, a Facebook group with more than 7,000 members.
Last Sunday, the wedding was small and simple, with a friend officiating and a very small group of friends and family looking on. (Park gatherings, said park ranger Blank, are restricted to 10 people or fewer; two groups of five, separated by six feet.) Now Howard, who can cross the border once the marriage license is certified, is planning to move north, with a mandatory 14-day quarantine immediately after her arrival.
She’ll need to apply for permanent residency status, for which being married to a Canadian qualifies her. Mark Belanger, a Vancouver attorney specializing in immigration, said that currently it takes between six months to a year to get permanent residency, but that an American spouse like Howard would be allowed to be in Canada throughout that time, and can apply for a work permit. He said he’s seen a significant uptick in applications from cross-border spouses seeking permanent residency — about double last year’s rate.
It’s a long and expensive process (Howard and Morosan have a GoFundMe set up), but it means that a very long six months of separation will soon end, and that formerly online conversations can finally happen face to face.
“I’m just so excited to see her again,” said Howard, speaking before the wedding. “She’s always been there, ready to help me whenever I needed her. I feel like she is someone who’s willing to fight for me, and to go the distance. I’ll do the exact same thing for her.”
“At this time,” said Morosan, “you have to keep the ones you love close.”