'Informal' network helping refuge seekers get to Manitoba, U.S. officials say

U.S. officials say an underground railroad between Minneapolis and the Canadian border is enabling an increasing number of refuge seekers to get into this country.

Would-be refugee claimants using three main routes to cross the border by foot

Manitoba's cold and dangerous border crossings

7 years ago
Duration 2:22
U.S. officials say 'informal' network helps refuge seekers get to Canada, but the last border snow trek is often the hardest part of a long journey

The rising number of refuge-seekers crossing the U.S. border into Manitoba has not escaped the notice of the Department of Homeland Security.

Officials in the U.S. say that "informal" networks of family members and friends, rather than criminal profiteers, are helping refugee claimants get to the border.

"What we've seen hasn't fit the profile of hardened criminals or organized crime types," says Eric Kuhn, a U.S. border patrol officer in Pembina, N.D.

"It's more informal, almost charity-based, although some of them are charging a fair amount of money to get here … so there's some profit motive there."

Marc Prokosch, an immigration lawyer in Bloomington, Minn., said he has heard about a network of drivers that take refuge seekers from Minneapolis to the border.

He characterized it more as an underground railroad than a human smuggling route. Prokosch said several of his clients have disappeared, only to contact him weeks later from inside Canada.

Kuhn said it's not illegal to drive someone to the border, but it can be "exploitative."

Getting to the border

People get to the border in a variety of ways. For example, some take a bus into Grand Forks, N.D., and hire a cab.

Eric Kuhn, a U.S. border patrol officer in North Dakota, points down a farmer's field towards Manitoba. Since last spring, the Canadian Border Services Agency says more than 400 people have snuck into Canada around this area. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

One taxi driver told CBC News he gets requests "all the time" — often right at the Grand Forks bus depot — and has made several trips himself.

He charges up to $200 US per person for the approximately one-hour ride.

"It's like an airplane seat," he explained.

Others are driven in private vehicles from Minneapolis, which is about seven hours away.

Once they get to the border, Kuhn said refuge seekers use one of three main routes to cross over by foot.

Some use railroad tracks, while others hide in the treeline until they can get across, he said.

"They try to use the cover of darkness, they don't like to be seen," said Kuhn. "They want to make their entry before anyone detects them."

Ease of access

Kuhn said the most popular route is a decommissioned border crossing at Noyes, Minn., and Emerson, Man., where people can use a state highway to drive right up to the barricade between the two countries, get out of the vehicle and walk over.

"This is one of the areas where they've found for it to be the best spot for them to cross," said Kuhn, while giving CBC a tour of the area recently.

Many refuge-seekers looking to come into Canada from the U.S. have crossed the border from North Dakota or Minnesota into Manitoba. (CBC)

"I think it's ease of access. We're on a maintained state highway, you're not dealing with gravel roads and township and prairie trails, you're still in town, you're not in the hinterlands, in the wilds and swamps."

While approaching that area is very simple, refuge seekers run a high risk there of being intercepted by U.S. border patrol officers, he said.

To the east, some asylum seekers cross on foot near a set of TransCanada natural gas pipeline pumping stations on either side of the border.

The stretch of the border west between Noyes and Neche, N.D., involves a much longer trek over snowy farmers' fields.

People are told by their drivers and others who have made the journey to walk towards a large cell phone tower and the windmill lights near Halbstadt, Man.

They're less likely to be discovered by border officers, but Kuhn said they risk frostbite or worse if they can't get a cell signal to call 911 or are unable to flag down help quickly once they're on the Canadian side.

That was the case of two Ghanaian men who lost fingers and toes to frostbite after crossing on Christmas Eve.

"The great danger you get into in our area of operations … is the less likely you are to have a cell signal," Kuhn said. "When you do get into trouble and try to call 911, it may not go anywhere.

"We'll move heaven and earth to save people regardless of their legal status ... but we can't help you if we don't know you're there."

'Don't do it, don't do it'

Since last spring, the Canada Border Services Agency says more than 400 people have snuck into the country along this stretch, compared to 68 in 2013.

Minnesota immigration lawyer Marc Prokosch says political uncertainty in the U.S. is creating fear and panic among many of his clients. (CBC)

Refugee claimants are choosing to walk across the border instead of presenting themselves at ports of entry because the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the U.S. means claimants must file for refugee status in the first safe country in which they arrive.

Despite calls to suspend or withdraw from the Safe Third Country Agreement, Canadian Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen has said repeatedly that U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order on immigrants and refugees does not affect the agreement, which will remain in place.

While political uncertainty in the U.S. is creating fear among many of his clients, Prokosch cautions them against making the crossing, particularly in light of stories of refuge seekers nearly freezing to death in the process.

"I'm saying, don't do it, don't do it. Talk to your lawyer first. This is dangerous stuff. You've made it out of a dangerous situation, don't put yourself back into another dangerous situation."

Prokosch said that while the U.S. political situation is tense, "there's always something we can try to keep someone in the United States."


Karen Pauls

National reporter

Karen Pauls covers Manitoba stories for CBC national news. She has worked across Canada, U.S. and Europe, and in CBC bureaus in Washington, London and Berlin. Some of her awards include the New York Festivals for coverage of the Greyhound bus beheading and a Quirks & Quarks question show, and from the Radio Television Digital News Association for stories about asylum seekers, the Michif language, the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy, live elections and royal wedding shows. In 2007, Karen received the Canadian Association of Journalist’s Dateline Hong Kong Fellowship and did a radio documentary on the 10th anniversary of the deadly avian flu outbreak. Story tips at