Frigid conditions leave people sneaking into U.S. nowhere to hide, border agent warns

For some migrants desperate enough to walk through howling winter winds to enter the United States, a light in the sky was their beacon of hope. It was perhaps the only reference point for a group of undocumented migrants walking into the United States last week, a U.S. border agent suggests. 

Making a run for the border from Canada isn't a rare occurrence, says agent patrolling the vast federal border

Kathryn Siemer, deputy patrol agent in charge of the station in Pembina, N.D., says the frigid conditions make the jobs of her agents more difficult and can prove too dangerous for migrants who may attempt the same trek. (Ian Froese/CBC)

For some migrants desperate enough to walk through howling winter winds to enter the United States, a light in the sky was their beacon of hope.

The light shining from an unmanned gas plant just inside the American side of the border, near St. Vincent, Minn., was perhaps the only reference point for a group of undocumented migrants walking into the United States last week, a U.S. border agent suggests. 

"You can see for miles and miles right now, but in the night you can't," said Kathryn Siemer, deputy patrol agent leading the station in nearby Pembina, N.D.

She said the gas plant — a visible marker, no matter the time of day — is sometimes a destination for people illegally sneaking into the United States from Manitoba.

It's also where seven undocumented Indian nationals were allegedly set to meet — and a man reportedly waited for them in a rented vehicle — before being apprehended by U.S. border patrol agents on the morning of Jan. 19. Justice officials believe they've dealt a blow to an organized human smuggling operation. Steve Shand of Florida has been charged in relation to the incident.

As the sun falls on a recent evening, the unmanned gas plant, northeast of St. Vincent, Minn., shines brightly as one of the few buildings only hundreds of metres from the United States' border with Canada. (Ian Froese/CBC)

One of the captured migrants said they'd been walking for 11.5 hours in the cold, which means only a smattering of lights were guiding them through the nighttime.

That same person said they got separated from a family of four the night before.

The Patel family — a mother, father, 11-year-old girl and three-year-old boy — froze to death just steps from the U.S. border, and roughly a kilometre northeast of the gas plant.

The temperature felt like –35, with fierce winds producing whiteout conditions. The family fell victim to the frigid conditions, the autopsy confirmed.

A trek in the dead of winter

As this frozen trek demonstrates, the winter here is unforgiving. The border patrol agents who secure this flat, barren landscape understand that better than most.

"Unless you see it, it's hard to envision just the stark vastness that is out here," Siemer said, standing amid what seems like endless fields covered in snow.

"You have to describe it as just miles and miles of farmland where there's not a lot of infrastructure, there's not a lot of population and that's what you're patrolling," Siemer said.

"These roads aren't paved. They're just county-maintained roads. Sometimes they're blown over by the snow and sometimes they're accessible. The road access is sometimes hit or miss."

WATCH | Border patrol agents underscore the dangers in the winter:

Border towns hurting after Patel family perished en route to the US

1 year ago
Duration 2:59
Townsfolk along the border between US and Canada are heartbroken a family of four died of exposure trying to cross on a cold January night. The US Customs and Border Patrol say human smugglers exploit the cold weather their advantage.

Finding someone out there is a "little bit like a needle in a haystack sometimes," Siemer acknowledged, but that same wide expanse is dangerous for people making a run for the border too.

"As we saw last week, there was nowhere for them to hide and take cover."

The small U.S. border towns know all about these undocumented crossings. They remember clearly the waves of hundreds of refugee claimants who entered Canada near Emerson, Man., four and five years ago.

Speak to residents here, and they'll tell you of at least one experience seeing or interacting with the asylum-seekers themselves. 

Mason Peters, who runs a coffee shop, Barnabas Bean Co, said people in his home of Pembina, N.D., have come across people sneaking across the border but the latest tragedy is breaking hearts. (Ian Froese/CBC)

Mason Peters used to be a pastor in Pembina, N.D., a border town just south of the border. Sometimes, people desperate to sneak into Canada came to his church for help.

"Drop us off and show us where to walk so we can walk into Canada undetected," Peters remembers them saying. 

Roberta Peterson used to field these same kind of requests while working at a gas station in Pembina. 

Somebody "would drop them off with all their luggage and leave them" in the parking lot, Peterson said.

"There's not much we can do for you." 

But what's different about the border crossing that ended in tragedy this month is the direction they were going. Many residents say they've never heard of crossings into the United States, and Peters, who now runs a joint coffee shop and parcel warehouse, say residents are heartbroken.

"Everybody feels it here locally. It's probably 15 times since it's happened someone has come in and said, 'I can't believe it.'" 

But it happens more frequently than some locals think.

Sneaking into U.S. 'not uncommon'

Along much of Minnesota and North Dakota, more than 200 such crossings were reported in the 2020 fiscal year. Every couple of weeks, a group tries to cross, Siemer estimated.

"It's definitely not as frequent as the southern border, but it's not uncommon on the northern border."

Smuggling organizations tend to follow similar routes, she said. Emerson tends to be treated as a staging area, with migrants dropped off near the community and told to walk south.

And, she said, it's happening more often. 

"It seems to go in waves. We'll see periods of low [number of crossings] and we'll see periods of high, and I do think we're entering a period of high."

She figures the smugglers who orchestrate the border crossings are using winter to their benefit. They know the patrollers don't have the same resources as they do in warmer months. When it's cold, cameras and sensors falter, Siemer said.

The U.S. Border Patrol uses a range of technology, including cameras and sensors, to secure its boundary with Canada. (Ian Froese/CBC)

It doesn't matter to the smugglers, she said, that numbing temperatures are harmful to their clients.

"They don't care about the well-being of the people that they are smuggling. They absolutely don't. They just want the money," Siemer said.

"And they will risk lives, as shown last week, to do it."

She said the first concern of the border agents who came across the undocumented Indian nationals last week were their safety.

Two agents had emergency medical training and determined all seven of them were suffering from symptoms of hypothermia — which required a stay in hospital for two of them.


Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese is a reporter for CBC Manitoba. You can reach him at