Jaswant Patel is waiting for a knock on his door or a phone call that will confirm his worst fears or deepen a mystery that has consumed a village in India.
His cousin’s family, including two young children, is missing almost two weeks after saying they would use visitor visas to travel to Canada from their hometown of Dingucha earlier this month.
Relatives stopped hearing from the family — identified as Jagdish Patel, 35, his wife, Vaishali, 33, daughter Vihanga, 12, and three-year-old son, Dharmik — days later.
Loved ones became worried when they read online news reports from Canada about 11 Indian nationals who made a tragic bid to illegally walk across the border into the U.S. in a -35 C blizzard at night.
Winter weather, vast expanse make patrolling Canada-U.S. border a challenge
Posted: 10:47 AM Jan. 26, 2022
SAINT VINCENT, Minn. - A bleak panorama of frozen, windblown prairie extends in every direction behind Katy Siemer as she points north, past a barren stand of trees to a pipeline compressor station a few hundred metres away in Manitoba.
The U.S. Border Patrol agent is standing alongside a similar facility in Minnesota that she says undocumented migrants use as a meeting spot when sneaking over from Canada, usually under cover of darkness.
The frozen bodies of a family of four were found 10 kilometres east of Emerson, Man., on the afternoon of Jan. 19 after seven undocumented survivors, all suffering varying degrees of frostbite and hypothermia, were picked up by U.S. border patrol agents just across the boundary in Minnesota.
The bodies had not been formally identified as of Wednesday.
Jaswant Patel told the Free Press he doesn’t know if his cousin’s family is among the migrants who made the perilous journey in a human smuggling operation.
After asking Indian government officials to trace the vanished family, relatives are waiting for diplomats from the high commission in Ottawa to relay information.
"My cousin is missing, but I have not received any official confirmation," Jaswant Patel, who lives in Dingucha, wrote in a WhatsApp message.
A photo published by Indian media shows a bespectacled Jagdish Patel standing next to his smiling wife, who is cradling their son in her arms. The boy clutches a mobile phone, while his older sister smiles as she stares into the camera.
Desperate for answers, Jaswant Patel wanted to know when Manitoba RCMP will confirm the identities of the four victims.
"Can you help me or is it really my family or someone else?" he asked a reporter. "Please help me find the right information."
If it isn’t his family, his search will continue.
RCMP spokeswoman Cpl. Julie Courchaine said autopsies began Wednesday and it could be days before the results are revealed.
"Formal identification is still pending. When we have further information to share we will advise," she wrote in an email.
The RCMP is working with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and officials from India’s consulate in Toronto to identify the bodies and notify next of kin.
When the deaths were announced last week, the RCMP said the victims were a man, woman, infant and teenage boy, according to an initial assessment. The information does not match the makeup of the Patel family, whose oldest child is a girl and youngest is not a baby.
The RCMP acknowledged details about the gender and age of the victims could change once autopsies are finished.
Police refused to be drawn into Indian media speculation the Patels are among the migrants involved in the tragedy.
"We are aware that some media outlets are publishing the possible identities of the four victims," a news release stated Monday. "As a law enforcement organization, we will not be in a position to confirm these names until we have 100 per cent certainty of their identities and next of kin notification is completed."
Dingucha resident Amrut Patel, who knows Jagdish Patel’s father, said the missing man told loved ones he had obtained visitor visas to enter Canada.
There was no mention of plans to travel to the U.S.
"After that, he was lost. His father did not get information from him," Amrut Patel told the Free Press in a phone interview. "The family is in deep worry because they don’t have the full information."
He doesn’t think Jagdish or Vaishali have relatives in Canada.
Journalists from India’s national media have descended on Dingucha to speak to relatives and find out why the Patel family left.
Located in the western state of Gujarat, the quiet village is home to more than 3,000 people, many of whom work in farming, according to Indian census data.
The surviving migrants speak Gujarati, a language native to the state.
One of the migrants told border agents the family of four became separated in the darkness and brutal winter conditions, as the larger group walked for more than 11 hours.
Along with an alleged human smuggler, the seven were arrested by U.S. border patrol agents near St. Vincent, Minn., on the morning of Jan. 19. The migrants were wearing new winter clothing.
A woman who was hospitalized with severe frostbite was at risk of having part of her hand amputated, according to a court document.
One of the migrants told border agents the family of four became separated in the darkness and brutal winter conditions, as the larger group walked for more than 11 hours, an affidavit stated.
That sparked the search which came to a tragic end hours later.
The migrant was carrying a backpack belonging to the family. It contained children’s clothes and medication, a diaper and toys.
Another migrant said he entered Canada on a fraudulent student visa, and was on his way to meet family in Chicago.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has started deportation proceedings.
"All seven migrants who illegally entered the United States last week were administratively processed for removal and/or placed into removal proceedings as per the Immigration and Nationality Act," spokesman Kris Grogan wrote in an email.
Steve Shand, 47, a resident of Deltona, Fla., was allegedly tasked with picking up the migrants. Two were with him in a rented van when he was arrested, the affidavit stated.
A judge on Monday agreed to release him from custody. He is charged with transporting or attempting to transport illegal aliens.
No one has been charged in the four deaths in Manitoba.
More than 125 people from Canada and India took part in a virtual prayer service for the four victims Monday.
It was co-organized by Winnipegger Ash Patel, who moved to Canada from Gujarat about 18 years ago.
"We prayed for them to rest in peace and for God to give strength to their family members," he said. "Everybody was in shock hearing this news (about the deaths)."