Indian family remembered as arrests made in border tragedy
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Baldev Patel cannot remember much of the last conversation he had with his son and, while the memories are fast fading, the hurt remains.
Patel’s son, 39-year-old Jagdish Patel, was found dead along with his wife Vaishaliben Patel, 37, and their two children, daughter Vihangi, 11, and son Dharmik, 3, on Jan. 19, 2022, near a border crossing between Manitoba and the United States.
The RCMP have said the family was trying to get into the U.S. during severe winter weather and died from exposure. Investigators have linked the deaths to a human smuggling operation.
Police in India arrested two men this weekend in connection with the family’s deaths.
The men were arrested on suspicion of facilitating illegal immigration and will face charges, police officials in the city of Ahmedabad told local media.
The men allegedly obtained visas for migrants who later travelled to Canada.
Two other suspects, who are believed to be in Canada and the U.S., are wanted in connection with the case in the state of Gujarat, Chaitanya Mandlik, deputy commissioner of police of the Ahmedabad Crime Branch, was quoted as saying to the Press Trust of India news agency.
The latter two are alleged to be “crossing agents” who get paid per migrant, he said.
The Patels were found about 10 kilometres east of Emerson, while seven other Indian migrants were found by U.S. border patrol agents and placed into deportation proceedings.
“The city crime branch has registered an offence in a case wherein the accused (agents) had forced 11 people to walk in the snow in a bid to get them illegally cross the U.S.-Canada border, causing the death of four members of a family,” Mandlik reportedly told journalists.
Baldev Patel said he talked to his son just a few days before he died.
“He had reached Canada,” Patel said of his son in an interview in Hindi from his home in Dingucha, a village of about 3,000 people in the Gujarat state of western India. “He was going to the U.S.
“He was happy.”
He said his son lived in a single-storey house in Dingucha before leaving for Canada. That house is now locked and unoccupied.
His son held different jobs, including teaching, farming and selling kites, the father said.
“Nothing worked out.”
He is not sure how his son decided on the route from Canada to the U.S., or from whom he sought help.
“He wanted to go, he went,” Patel said. “He was a 40-year-old man. He knew what he was doing. He carved his own path. What could we say?”
Jayesh Chaudhary, a family friend from the village, said in an interview in Hindi that things have quietened down for the Patels since the deaths.
The family has returned to its ancestral profession of farming, he said.
“There is sadness.”
Almost every household from Dingucha has someone living in Canada, the U.S., United Kingdom or Australia, he said.
Chaudhary said police officers have regularly been seen in the village talking to people since the deaths.
Anil Pratham, a high-ranking police official in Gujarat, was involved in investigating the case from January 2022 until September.
Pratham said “lots of people” want to go to a western country with expectations of a better life, financial security and might be willing to break the law to do so.
Manitoba RCMP said earlier this week that they had no updates on the case.
Nearly a year after their deaths, Patel said he is still asked about the final hours of his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.
“We are here,” he said. “How are we to know what actually went on?”
In February last year, U.S. officials said a 47-year-old Florida resident had been indicted by a federal grand jury on two counts of human smuggling in the case.
Steve Anthony Shand was identified as the driver of a white van near the U.S.-Canada border that was carrying undocumented Indian nationals. He was picked up just south of the border on Jan. 19, 2022, officials said.
Five others from India were spotted soon after in the snow walking in the direction of the van. They told border officers that they had been walking for more than 11 hours in the freezing cold and that four others had become separated from the group overnight.
One man in the group also said he had paid a large amount of money to get a fake student visa in Canada and was expecting a ride to a relative’s home in Chicago after he crossed the border, U.S. officials said at the time.
Ajamal Thakor, a Patel family friend who lives in Dingucha, said the parents have suffered a huge loss.
“It’s not easy to see your children die,” he said in Hindi.
One of the family members arranged a breakfast at the local school to mark the nearly one-year anniversary of the deaths, he said.
“It’s an Indian custom.”
Chaudhary said most in the close-knit community are trying to move ahead.
“For most, it’s just a memory.”
But Patel said memories of his son are filled with despair and worry about the future.
His son was supposed to have found a job in the U.S. and help his parents financially in their old age, he said.
“Now, we just are …”
“We are in a lot, a lot, a lot of pain.”
— The Canadian Press, with staff files
Updated on Monday, January 16, 2023 10:19 AM CST: Updates headline, story