Family’s brutal end hasn’t stopped others intent on crossing border from gambling with lives

A tragedy involving an Indian family who died trying to walk across the Canada-U.S. border near Emerson a year ago hasn’t stopped others from attempting the perilous journey.

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A tragedy involving an Indian family who died trying to walk across the Canada-U.S. border near Emerson a year ago hasn’t stopped others from attempting the perilous journey.

There has been a rapid uptick in apprehensions of people illegally crossing in both directions or seeking asylum along Manitoba’s border with Minnesota and North Dakota.

Kathryn Siemer of U.S. Customs and Border Protection said one likely factor is the easing of COVID-19 air-travel restrictions worldwide.

“I think COVID slowed things down, so people are trying again,” said Siemer, the acting agent in charge of the border patrol station in Pembina, N.D.

Human-trafficking networks remain active in the area, she said, citing a couple of crossings in November and December.

For the networks, it’s profits over people.

“The smuggling organizations don’t care about the safety or lives of the people they’re smuggling,” said Siemer.

Keith Cozine, who chairs the criminal justice and homeland security department at St. John’s University in New York, said COVID-19 restrictions likely stymied trafficking routes that involve air travel.

“With travel restrictions loosened, it would open up smuggling routes and increase the volume of illegal crossings,” he said.

In 2022, the RCMP intercepted 72 asylum seekers between land border points of entry in Manitoba up to Nov. 30, according to the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada website.

Almost 75 per cent of the interceptions occurred between September and November, after crossings seemed to slow to a trickle earlier in the year. Data for December is not yet available.

The RCMP reported 19 interceptions in 2021, 28 in 2020 and 180 in 2019.

Record numbers of asylum seekers arrived from the U.S. after Donald Trump’s presidential election victory in November 2016.

Manitoba RCMP intercepted 1,018 asylum seekers in 2017.

Emerson is one of the more well-documented areas. Dave Carlson, reeve of the Municipality of Emerson-Franklin, said most people who travel to the area to seek asylum do so at the local port of entry.

He hopes last year’s tragedy deters people from making a similar journey.

“We’re just hopeful we never see anything like that happen again,” said Carlson.

“We’re just hopeful we never see anything like that happen again.”–Dave Carlson

Since Oct. 1, U.S. agents who patrol the northern border in Customs and Border Protection’s Grand Forks section — which stretches from North Dakota to Wisconsin — have intercepted more than 80 people, said Siemer.

A total of 81 “encounters” occurred during the fiscal year from October 2021 to September 2022, down from 91 and 227 the previous two years, according to the CBP’s online dashboard.

The figures include apprehensions, expulsions and people deemed inadmissible.

For years, Mexican citizens have represented the highest proportion of apprehensions by U.S. agents.

The CBP’s total for the 2022 fiscal year includes seven Indian nationals who survived a border crossing that resulted in the deaths of the family just steps from the border.

Jagdishkumar Patel, 39; his wife Vaishaliben Patel, 37; their 11-year-old daughter, Vihangi; and their three-year-old son, Dharmik, were found in a snowy field east of Emerson on Jan. 19, 2022.

Investigators believe at least three other crossings took place in the area in the preceding weeks.

A local resident, who asked to remain anonymous, said a camera was attached to a stop sign at a rural intersection following one of the suspected crossings.

Last Thursday, the Free Press accompanied Siemer to a desolate area northeast of St. Vincent, Minn., where the survivors were discovered after walking more than 11 hours in extreme cold and a blizzard.

A crossing occurred in the area days before the visit.

“It happens more than people think,” said Siemer.

Often, it happens at night. Cold weather doesn’t deter people from trying their luck.

For those who patrol the border, it’s like a game of cat-and-mouse.

“It happens more than people think.”–Kathryn Siemer

Smugglers, who prey upon and profit from desperation, will switch locations following an apprehension or if they know agents are patrolling the area, said Siemer.

Many who try to cross are in pursuit of a better life or work or other opportunities. It’s not unusual to encounter groups as large as a dozen.

“A lot of them want to chase the American dream, as they call it,” said Siemer, whose previous posts include border stations in Maine and Arizona.

Illegal crossings don’t occur as frequently on the northern frontier as they do on the U.S.-Mexico border, which has fences and more patrols, but patrolling its vast stretches is a challenge.

“The work up here is sometimes harder because it’s harder to tell where people are crossing,” said Siemer.

Twitter: @chriskitching

Chris Kitching

As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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