Manitoba border deaths: Details emerge about alleged human-smuggler, amid questions about one family’s ‘desperate decision’


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One man charged with smuggling. A backpack. Footprints in the snow.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/01/2022 (497 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

One man charged with smuggling. A backpack. Footprints in the snow.

Those are the clues authorities have revealed so far from a joint U.S.-Canada investigation into a suspected human-smuggling operation that appears linked to the deaths of a family of four in southern Manitoba this week.

A man and woman, along with a teenage boy and a baby, were found dead 12 metres north of the Canada-U.S. border on Thursday by RCMP. They were 10 kilometres east of the town of Emerson, and had faced blizzard conditions while surrounded by farmer’s fields, unable to take cover.

JOHN WOODS - THE CANADIAN PRESS A border marker is shown just outside of Emerson, Man.. Investigators believe the deaths of four people, including a baby and a teen, whose bodies were found in Manitoba near the United States border, are linked to a larger human smuggling operation.

Investigators say they believe the family froze to death while trying to cross into the U.S. from Canada with a group of Indian nationals. The family has yet to be identified, and autopsies have yet to be completed, the RCMP said Friday.

Why the group risked such a treacherous winter crossing remains unclear.

“It is so tragic to see a family perish like this, victims of human traffickers, misinformation, and people who have taken advantage of their desire to build a better world,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in French when asked about the deaths during an unrelated news conference in Ottawa on Friday.

Meanwhile, Steve Shand, 47, of Deltona, Fla., who was stopped with some of the Indian nationals south of the border, is being detained in Minnesota after being charged with human smuggling. He will appear in court Monday.

Authorities allege he is part of a larger, organized human-smuggling ring. In addition to the findings this week of seven Indian nationals having crossed the border into the U.S. near Emerson, and the four people who died trying, the complaint against Shand details two previous suspected smuggling events in recent weeks, allegedly discovered by U.S. Border Patrol agents who found footprints in the snow.

“Two groups of four appeared to have walked across the border into the U.S. and were picked up by someone in a vehicle,” the complaint reads. On one of the days when the footprints were found, RCMP also located a backpack with a price tag listing a price in Indian currency as “what was believed to be the drop-off point for the illegal border crossings.”

The complaint against Shand further notes the vehicle he was driving before he was arrested, a 15-passenger van, had been rented on Jan. 17 from the Minneapolis airport, about a six-hour drive from the border crossing. He allegedly had receipts for an earlier “full size passenger van” rental from Jan. 10 to Jan. 13, a hotel receipt from Grand Forks North Dakota on Jan. 11, and a Walmart receipt for snacks and drinks that were loaded in the back of the van.

Shand has no previous criminal record, according to U.S. court records. Other public records offer a more detail into his life.

The American citizen, originally born in Jamaica, appears to have purchased his house in Deltona, Fla., in 2012. Prior to that, he had an address in Lindenhurst, Ill.

Shand appears to have been briefly part of a class-action lawsuit against Darden Restaurants between 2012 and 2014, in which workers tried to sue the Olive Garden and Capital Grille restaurant chain for its policies on clocking in and out of their shifts. The class action was dissolved by a judge who said each of the 218,000 members of the class would have to sue the restaurant individually for wage violations.

In November 2017, he filed to register a company called “Shand’s Taxi,” with his home as its main address of operation. The company appears to be still operating, as it filed a 2021 annual report.

Shand has experienced serious financial woes. In 2018, he filed for bankruptcy protection, reporting a monthly income of $2,200 and monthly expenses double that amount. He reported having his house, two cars, a gun, and $16 to his name.

The operation law enforcement allege Shand was a part of appears unusual.

In 2020 and 2021, irregular border crossings from Canada to the U.S. were relatively rare, with 50,003 having been detected by U.S. Border Patrol.

By comparison, 200,000 such encounters were reported along the U.S.-Mexico border in the month of July 2021 alone.

Crossings into Minnesota and North Dakota, in particular, from Canada made up a small portion of the overall number. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers found 411 people trying to cross irregularly in fiscal year 2021, and 1,315 in 2020, into the two states. Most making the southbound trek from Canada crossed into Maine, Michigan or Vermont, figures show.

Tim Nielsen is the director of Naomi House in Winnipeg, a transitional house for newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers, run by the City Church.

Most puzzling to him is the southward border crossing.

“To me, that’s unheard of,” he said. “I don’t know why they would be doing that. … But I do know this: That was the worst possible time they could ever cross. It’s just incredibly frigid right now.”

Typically, he said, asylum seekers who end up at Naomi House have made their way north from South America. They would navigate the Darién Gap into Panama, make their way up through Central America and cross the border into the U.S.

Often, they would be detained by U.S. immigration, then released ahead of a court appearance. Instead, they would make their way north to the Canadian border where they would cross irregularly.

Once over the border, asylum seekers would call the RCMP and tell them they were seeking asylum. RCMP would typically take them to the Salvation Army, which would direct them to Naomi House, which could house them for a year while their asylum claim was being heard by a Canadian judge.

That sort of migration happened on a fairly regular basis, said Neilsen. The numbers spiked around 2016.

“There was a large flow for about two or three years, from the time that President Trump took office,” said Neilsen. “Then, when the new administration in the U.S. came, I think a lot of people felt more comfortable staying.”

“That might have contributed to why these people were going south.”

Under the Safe Third Country Agreement, Canada and the U.S. have each declared the other a safe country for refugees. In broad strokes, that means that a person seeking asylum must seek it in the first of the two countries in which they arrive. And, if that person is denied asylum in the U.S., for example, they cannot then seek asylum in Canada, and vice versa.

That agreement is currently under scrutiny. In December, the Supreme Court of Canada announced it would hear an appeal from a number of organizations on a Federal Court of Appeal’s decision to overturn a Federal Court ruling that the STCA violated the charter. In essence, the July 2020 Federal Court decision determined that the U.S. was not a “safe third country.”

To Shauna Labman, the decision to make the mid-winter, mid-blizzard trek across the border speaks, in some degree, to the difficulty faced by refugees in staying permanently in Canada.

Labman is an associate professor of Human Rights at the Global College at the University of Winnipeg.

“It’s a desperate decision, right? It’s a decision at a point where you have no other choices, it seems,” she said.

“I’m a mother, and the idea that this family thought it was a choice for their children and their children’s future to do this just shows desperation and the impossibility of creating a life and a future in any other circumstances.”

While much of the focus right now is on the human-smuggling aspect of the tragedy, that decision should also serve as an indicator that Canadian immigration policies and laws are quite restrictive and may force many to feel like they have to make difficult choices, she said.

“The reality is that, unless you meet that refugee definition, unless you have nuclear family that’s able to sponsor you, a family unification, or unless you’re an economic immigrant who can meet those categories, your ability to come to a country like Canada legally is impossibly narrow,” Labman said.

“And so that in itself forces people who feel desperate for one reason or another to make different choices.”

With files from The Canadian Press

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