Andrew Nelson

EMERSON, Manitoba (CN) — In the Red River Valley on the U.S.-Canada border near Minnesota, the plains can seem as flat as a tabletop. There are few trees to stop the cold winds and almost no place to shelter. There’s also little in terms of landmarks, making it easy to get disoriented.

That’s likely what happened nearly two years ago, when a family from India died here while crossing on foot into the United States during a blizzard. Amid skyrocketing crossing numbers on the northern border — and with changes to US and Canadian law regarding asylum seekers — officials on both sides of this permeable boundary fear that it’s just a matter of time before another such tragedy happens.

“Winter is coming,” Cpl. James Buhler of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said as he showed Courthouse News around the Canadian side of the border in late November. “If we don’t find them and they are hiding, our biggest fear is that they will succumb to the temperatures.”

The United States in recent years has seen a surge of unauthorized crossings on its borders. Over the 2023 fiscal year, which ended on September 30, authorities caught around 3.2 million people trying to enter the United States without proper documentation, according to figures from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Much of those encounters happen on the United States’ southern border with Mexico — but while the proportion of undocumented migrants crossing from Canada is relatively small, the numbers here are skyrocketing, too. U.S. border authorities had 189,402 migrant encounters on the northern border in FY 2023. That’s a nearly sevenfold increase from 2021, when that figure was 27,180.

As winter descends, officials on both sides are warning of the extreme danger faced by those who cross during the freezing winter months.

The consequences can be deadly, as they were for the Patel family.

On a frigid afternoon in January 2022, authorities found the bodies of three people roughly six miles east of Emerson, on the north side of a berm that runs along the Canadian side of the border. A fourth body was found a short time later. They were later identified as Jagdishkumar Patel, 39; his wife, Vaishaliben Patel, 37; and their children, Vihangi Patel, 11, and Dharmik Patel, 3. Caught in a blizzard, all four died of exposure, Manitoba’s chief medical examiner confirmed.

“I spent ten years in homicide,” said Buhler, the RCMP corporal and one of the responders that day. “You numb yourself to it. But you never get used to children.”

David Marcus, a spokesperson for U.S. Border Patrol’s nearby Grand Forks Sector, said that on the day the Patels were found, temperatures reached -9 degrees Fahrenheit, with wind chills of almost -30 degrees. “You are not going to be able to survive very long outside in those types of temperatures,” he said as he showed Courthouse News around the southern side of the U.S.-Canada border.

“When it’s that cold and the wind is that strong, you are going to need shelter and a heat source if you want to survive out here,” Marcus added. Making the situation even worse for the Patel family, there was an ongoing blizzard at that time. “Visibility was very poor.”

The four members of the Patel family, who died while attempting to cross into the United States from Canada on foot in January 2022. Authorities found their bodies only a few feet from the largely unmarked border near Emerson, Manitoba. (Image courtesy of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police)
The four members of the Patel family, who died while attempting to cross into the United States from Canada on foot in January 2022. Authorities found their bodies only a few feet from the largely unmarked border near Emerson, Manitoba. (Image courtesy of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police)

In this remote stretch of the northern United States, unauthorized crossings happen in both directions. Like on the U.S.-Mexico border, many unauthorized crossers are desperate migrants in search of a better life. Few if any are Canadian or American.

In other ways, though, this border could not be more different than the southern border. While the U.S.-Mexico border is partially fenced and heavily militarized, much of the U.S.-Canada border is too remote to reliably surveil.

The boundary line is sometimes completely undetectable to the casual observer. With few visible markers, fishing boats and snowmobiles sometimes inadvertently cross and must be redirected back to their home country.

“There are thousands of miles where there are no people out there, and in some areas [there are] no fences,” said Kenneth Gray, a senior lecturer in Criminal Justice at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. Especially in remote places like the Red River Valley, “it’s hard to know where the border is.”

The Patels are not the only ones who have perished as they’ve attempted to cross this frigid boundary line. In March, authorities in Canada recovered the bodies of eight migrants from a marsh on the St. Lawrence River in Quebec.

The bodies came from two families — one from India, the other from Romania — and included a one-year-old and a two-year-old, according to the BBC. Like thousands of others, the group had been attempting to enter the United States.

In the case of the Patels, authorities determined the family had become separated from a larger group crossing into far northern Minnesota. The RCMP is continuing to investigate the deaths, with arrests happening around the world.

Steve Shand, whom a snowplow operator found stuck in snow in a 15-passenger van on a country road on the U.S. side of the border, now faces charges in Minnesota for harboring migrants and domestic transporting. If Shand hadn't needed to be pulled out of the snow, the Patels might not have been found until spring, said Buhler, the RCMP corporal.

“You can’t mess around in the winter,” Buhler said. “If [migrants] are hiding in the snow, chances are they are going to get hypothermia.”

RCMP Sergeant Lance Goldau, who directs operations for the Red River Integrated Enforcement Team, stressed how dangerous crossing this section of the border could be — especially as temperatures drop in the winter months.

Crossers are ill-prepared, and they “don’t understand the harsh Manitoba environment,” he said, noting just some of the dangerous conditions: “High winds. Unpredictable snow squalls that come in. Deep snow.”

Still, as unauthorized crossing numbers continue to climb, Goldau can empathize with those desperate to improve their lot in life.

“We are all humans,” he said. “These people are just trying to live a better life that many of us are fortunate to have.”

The situation on the 5,525-mile-long U.S./Canadian border reflects what is going on along the southern border, but with smaller numbers.

Here, in the Border Patrol’s Grand Forks Sector, there were 300 encounters with undocumented migrants in the 2023 fiscal year — with 19 since just the start of October. That’s a significant jump over the past two years, for which the total number of such encounters numbered less than 100.

A border partol agent on the Montana-Canada border.
A border patrol agent on the Montana-Canada border.

Like on the U.S.-Mexico border, geography and human settlement can blur the boundary line. Emerson, a town of about 675, sits right on the northern border in Manitoba. The towns of Pembina, North Dakota, and St. Vincent, Minnesota, are just to the south.

Just across the border from Emerson, U.S. Highway 75 terminates at an abandoned U.S. Customs station before continuing as Boundary Avenue on the Canadian side. Those two roads offer migrants easier access but are closely watched.

The surrounding countryside is mostly flat, and a nearly matching grid of country roads nearly links both sides of the border. Those roads offer relatively easy vehicular access to smugglers and are harder for authorities to monitor.

While some undocumented migrants are desperate families, experts stress that others can be dangerous. Gray, the University of New Haven professor, cited the case of Ahmed Ressam, who was stopped and arrested in 2001 at the U.S.-Canada border near Washington state.

Ressam, who had trained with al-Qaida in Afghanistan, was caught with explosives. He was on his way to Los Angeles International Airport. He might have succeeded in killing Americans were it not for an “observant customs inspector," Gray said, who was just “doing her duty [and] thinking she was stopping a drug courier."

But in the 20-plus years since, both policies and rhetoric around undocumented crossings have gotten more stringent.

This past spring, revisions to the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement were put in place. Previously, someone who entered Canada wishing to make an asylum claim could simply walk across the border and turn themselves in. Now, migrants must be in the country for at least 14 days before making an asylum claim, potentially motivating them to evade capture in dangerous conditions.

Then there’s the terminology used by border authorities in the United States. Marcus, the local Border Patrol spokesperson, refers to human-smuggling operations on the U.S.-Canada border as “cartels,” echoing language used on the southern border.

Smugglers “are telling [migrants] lies that they can safely get into the United States, and they can’t,” he said. “It’s sad to see people who are getting taken advantage of in that way.”

Goldau, the local RCMP sergeant, wouldn’t use the word “cartel.” It was a term that “I think the U.S. uses more than us,” he said.

Still, like Marcus, he acknowledged that desperate migrants often turned to criminal organizations to help them cross the border line. “I would definitely confirm that there are organized smuggling networks,” he said. It’s “definitely an organized network of people that work together to complete their criminal task.”

Generally, illicit crossings go like this: A migrant wanting to cross the border gets in touch with a smuggler, who will drop them off near the boundary line and point them in the right direction.

If it all goes as advertised, another smuggler will be waiting to pick them up on the other side of the border. But in many cases — as with the Patels — things do not go as advertised and can even turn deadly.

Still, authorities acknowledge that not all undocumented crossers are assisted by such smuggling networks. Sometimes migrants are assisted by family members. Other times they go it alone, simply taking a rideshare or a taxi to a deserted spot near the border and trying to walk across.

Facing off against desperate migrants and organized criminals, border authorities in both the United States and Canada can find themselves outmaneuvered.

While both the RCMP and the Border Patrol rely on drones, cameras and sensors, monitoring all border crossings is expensive and logistically difficult, said Buhler, the RCMP corporal. “To try to put technology out in the middle of bald-ass prairie, it’s next to impossible,” he said as he stood on the border near where the Patels died.

Instead, border authorities rely on cooperation with their cross-country counterparts and with local residents, said Marcus, the local Border Patrol spokesperson.

“The folks that live up here, they’re our eyes and ears,” he said. “A lot of these people have been up here for most of their lives, and they know exactly when something looks out of place.”

The clues can be subtle. Some smugglers, including Shand, have out-of-state license plates. Other times, there are more obvious signs. “I think anybody who would see a group of ten to 12 people, dragging luggage and carrying backpacks too, would definitely figure that something was wrong,” Marcus said.

Marcus, who used to work at the Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector in Texas, reflected on the differences between the Mexican and Canadian border. While the sheer number of migrants is still lower on the northern border, chaos on the southern border pushes people to try to enter the U.S. through the north instead, he said.

Working in Texas, Marcus got used to seeing large groups of migrants crossing together. Recently, the size of migrant parties has gotten larger on the Canadian border as well, he said, with groups of migrants now sometimes numbering around 10 or 12 people.

“My first four years here, we never really saw groups that size,” Marcus added. “Now, we encounter quite a few of them.” Pushed on by desperation, there are simply more migrants willing to risk the journey than before.

Meanwhile, as former president Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric heated up around 2017 — including with his call for a “Muslim ban” — Canadian immigration officials noted an uptick of people fleeing northwards. Buhler, the RCMP corporal, said that around that time, he would see some nights with more than 20 or 30 trying to cross.

The Emerson area is not the only border crossing hotspot. Earlier this year, the unofficial Roxham Road crossing between Quebec and New York experienced a high number of transits.

Wherever they choose to cross, the tide of migrants shows no signs of slowing. Earlier this month, Border Patrol agents south of Emerson saw four people walking north toward Canada. They alerted their Canadian counterparts, who found four Chadian men in Emerson, including one the RCMP says was suffering from serious cold-related injuries. (The agency declined to provide further details, citing medical privacy laws.)

On both sides of the border, authorities agree the best weapon is deterrence. “If we were to send any message, it’s just simply: ‘Don’t do it,’” said Goldau, the RCMP sergeant. “It is not worth the risk.”

“The organizations that try to smuggle people do not care about the people they are moving,” Goldau added. “They don’t prepare them properly. They just care about making a profit.” But for migrants desperate for a better life in the United States or Canada, warnings like these may not be enough to stem the flow.