Asylum seekers crossing into Canada need life-saving supplies, says U.S. Border Angel

A member of the U.S. Border Angels, a group that provides life-saving supplies for people crossing the Mexican-American border unlawfully, says Canadians have a duty to help would-be refugee claimants who sneak into Canada.

California-based group provides water, blankets and food for those crossing U.S.-Mexico border

Seidu Mohammed, 24, and another man fled to Canada from the U.S. on Christmas Eve and both suffered severe frostbite. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

A member of the U.S. Border Angels, a group that provides life-saving supplies for people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border unlawfully, says Canadians have a duty to help would-be refugee claimants who sneak into Canada.

"I say emphatically yes, absolutely, citizens should take action," said Jonathan Yost, water drop co-ordinator for the California-based group that leaves supplies in the desert. "They have the ability and the responsibility to protect the most essential right there is. And that's the right to life.

"Regardless of how you feel about what they're doing, we're talking about our fellow human beings here."

In recent weeks, dozens of would-be refugee claimants have crossed the Canada-U.S. border by foot in parts of Quebec and Manitoba, often in brutal, freezing weather conditions. The influx is believed to be inspired in part by U.S. President Donald Trump's tough stance on illegal immigration and his controversial travel ban.

While community organizations and municipal officials have helped these would-be claimants once they've reached Canadian border towns, their treks have at times been treacherous.

Two Ghanaian men who made the journey through snowy fields in -18 C on Christmas Eve near the town of Emerson, Man., suffered severe frostbite and both lost fingers.

'Find out where people are crossing'

Contacted by CBC News, Yost said citizens in Canada could also provide help to asylum seekers before they reach the nearest community.

"I would definitely get supplies together, get citizens together, find out where people are crossing, find out what an appropriate amount of supplies would be," Yost said. 

The Border Angels drop off plastic containers of water, along with warm clothing, emergency blankets, hand warmers and cans of food for those who, once they cross the U.S.-Mexico border in south central California, make the dangerous journey though the rocky desert terrain.

They can face life-threatening heat exposure during the summer and freezing temperatures in the fall and winter. According to statistics from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, nearly 7,000 people have died crossing the southwest border between 1998 and 2016.

"I'd put out as many supplies as you can," Yost said in a telephone interview with CBC News. "It will save lives and if it doesn't save lives, it will prevent severe discomfort, discomfort that a lot of people have never experienced in their lives."

He said supplies should be easily identifiable by some kind of flag or notification marker.

"What would you want to receive when you're out there?" Yost said. "Would you want somebody to come out and help you and really make the difference between life and death for you?"

The Border Angels cover an area more than 50 kilometres wide in the Jacumba Wilderness, dropping their supples in the mountainous desert area just south of the town of Ocotillo, Calif. 

"Our goal is to find the most high-traffic, dangerous routes to put our supplies along," Yost said.

The supply drop locations are based on information they receive from those who have already crossed the border. As well, members will hike through areas looking for signs of activity, including discarded clothing or water bottles.

They also use Google Earth to examine the general area where they believe people are crossing.

Consumption rates vary

He said the supply consumption rates vary and it really depends on the route, as well as the timing weather wise and the political climate. For example, a spike in political rhetoric against illegal immigrants and calls for tougher measures often prompts an influx of people crossing the border into the U.S.

Supplies have been sabotaged many times, he said, presumably by those opposed to people entering the country illegally.

"We find slashed jugs pretty often, just gutted with knives."

There is nothing illegal about the activities of the Border Angels, he said, and the group has a good working relationship with U.S. border patrol agents. Yost said he makes their job easier by letting them know they are out with volunteers, dropping off water. 

Enrique Morones of the group Border Angels is seen here near the Mexican border in Jacumba, Calif. His group drops off supplies for those who, once they cross the U.S.-Mexico border, make the dangerous trek though the rocky terrain. (Alex Panetta/Canadian Press)

"I've never met a border patrol agent who was hostile to that," Yost said. "In fact, quite the opposite. On many occasions they've told me they respect and actually admire what we do. They're doing their job to apprehend people but they don't want them to die."

Not considered human smuggling

Toronto-based refugee lawyer Raoul Boulakia said a 2015 Supreme Court of Canada decision found Canadians who help someone come into the country for humanitarian reasons should not be considered to be engaging in human smuggling.

"If a church group said: 'If you're going to do this, please don't cross at this place, it's dangerous, please cross somewhere else, there's lots of places, or contact us' — they would be breaking the law but they would have a lawful excuse and could be defended," he said.

"As the Supreme Court said, helping people to arrive in Canada unlawfully, if you are doing it not for profit and you are doing it really out of a humanitarian aim, you have a lawful excuse for that."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.