After dropping five Somali asylum seekers off just south of the Canadian border Wednesday, their driver from the U.S. got turned around and ended up in Canada.
His five passengers walked for nearly two hours toward their destination — friendly Manitoba — then gave up in the -30 C windchill.
Their driver from Minneapolis, who crossed into Canada unintentionally, was held by authorities for several hours until his five passengers were located alive and not frozen to death in a farmer’s field.
That’s the kind of story Omar Jamal, director of the Somali Community of Minnesota, is hearing with increasing frequency.
"We’ve been dealing with this kind of situation for the past few months," said Jamal.
On Friday, he shared the most recent one about the five asylum seekers dropped off in Pembina, N.D.
Their driver waited too long to make a right turn and, before he knew it, was in the one-way traffic heading north toward Canada’s port of entry.
"He dropped them off and he got lost and ended up on the Canadian side," said Jamal, who has been fielding media inquiries from all over Canada and the U.S. about the well-worn route for asylum seekers trying to reach Canada on foot near Emerson, Man.
In the latest episode, five passengers trying to get into Canada on foot and undetected gave up after more than an hour, Jamal said.
They turned back and went to the gas station at Pembina, he said.
The three men and two women got a ride into Grand Forks, then took a bus back to Minnesota, he said.
No one from Canada Border Services Agency was able to comment Friday. The RCMP said they didn’t have any information about the incident, and no one at the gas station in Pembina was talking.
"We cannot comment on that," said the man who answered the phone at Gastrak in Pembina, N.D.
There would be no more close calls if people could safely get a ride to the Canadian port of entry and make their refugee claim there, Jamal said.
"I hope the Canadian government is considering not keeping the Safe Third Country Agreement in Place," said Jamal.
Canadian law professors, students and refugee advocates are also calling on Canada to scrap the bilateral deal with the U.S.
It was signed after 9/11 and put in place to control the flow of refugee claimants between the two countries.
It considers Canada and the U.S. both to be safe countries, so no one can cross from one country into the other to seek protection as a refugee.
Critics of the new U.S. administration of President Donald Trump say that country is no longer safe for refugees. Trump has tried to ban refugees and travellers from seven majority Muslim countries and has ramped up anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, said Jamal.
"There’s huge uncertainty." Some in the Somali community there are looking at the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War and wonder if it could happen to them, Jamal said.
"They think ‘I might as well do something now while I’m still free, before it’s too late.’"
The panic sending people north has Canadian officials on alert. At a meeting in Emerson on Thursday, RCMP agreed to increase patrols to pick up asylum seekers crossing into Canada and take them to the Canada Border Services Agency to initiate their request for protection in Canada.
The Mounties can’t turn the refugee claimants back at the border, said RCMP spokeswoman Tara Seel.
If they’re not committing a crime — smuggling drugs or weapons, for example — all they can do is apprehend them and take them to border officials.
Area MP Ted Falk (Provencher) is calling on the federal government to get rid of the "incentive" to sneak into Canada.
"I recognize that it’s not feasible to step up patrols along the border to curb this activity and that the current legal situation is complex," Falk said by email.
"As long as the incentive to enter the country illegally exists, I know the good people of Emerson will step up to help them," he said.
"A lasting solution requires a look at how we can remove the incentive to cross the border illegally — which currently puts the lives of asylum-seekers at risk — and create better incentives to proceed through the appropriate systems in place. The Government must review the current situation to that end."
Canadians needn’t worry about the kind of asylum seekers arriving from the U.S., says a Minneapolis immigration lawyer, who’s not a "fan" of clients running off to Canada.
"I would never counsel anyone to leave," said Marc Prokosch. If a refugee claim is denied in the U.S., the person can usually remain in that country, he said.
"So long as they’re not getting into trouble with law enforcement, immigration lets them alone," said Prokosch.
They can continue to work and earn a living although they can’t vote.
They also don’t have permanent resident status, so if they leave the U.S., they can’t get back in.
"The ones going north (to Canada) are not the ones who are criminal," he said.
Criminals, if they haven’t already been deported, are either locked up or closely monitored.
Prokosch said anyone considered a danger to the public can’t be released from a detention immigration centre, where asylum seekers are housed when they enter the U.S.
The ones heading for Canada, he thinks, are probably the brightest and most resilient.
They’ve survived harrowing months of travel from Africa through smuggling routes to South America, up through Central America and Mexico to the U.S., Prokosch said.
"If you can persevere through that, you have certain skills which might be enviable for a society.
"Those are attributes that should be admired."