RCMP bracing for more border crossers amid community concerns

Manitoba RCMP's commanding officer, Assistant Commissioner Scott Kolody, says his force is doing its due diligence on the border and has added more resources to this area.

Police doing due diligence, adding resources to Emerson area in wake of increased arrivals, RCMP officer says

Boundary Avenue runs along the 49th parallel. More than 400 potential refugee claimants have crossed near here since last April. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Emerson resident Tim Hoffman says he does not pay much attention to "the commotion" of asylum seekers crossing the border into his town. 

But he wants it to stop.

Looking at refugee claimants making the dangerous journey, through snow drifts and frigid temperatures, Hoffman says he would actually like to see stricter vetting of the potential refugees — perhaps in the same vein of U.S. President Donald Trump's measures on refugees and immigration south of the border.

"I love Trump," says Hoffman. "He sees the big picture."

Others, too, are expressing concerns, although for different reasons. 

The union representing border workers is calling for increased resources and local politicians say it is time to take another look at a pol​icy which encourages people to cross irregularly.

For its part, the RCMP says it is adjusting its resources in the area on a daily basis and tracking the peak times people cross — but adds warmer weather could complicate matters.

Emerson resident Tim Hoffman says he would like to see stricter vetting of potential refugee claimants crossing Canada's southern border. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Near Emerson's town centre, Hoffman reaches through the back window of his car to give his friendly dog, a boxer, a scratch on the ear. 

He admits he does not understand what drives people to cross the border.

"I guess I haven't investigated it enough," he says.

Taking a big sigh, he adds, "It sounds unfair, really. ​You know, being that we​'re a country built on immigrants. But it comes to a point where you just have to put your foot down and say, 'Hey, we've had enough immigration now.'"

Hundreds of claimants

According to the local reeve and RCMP, eight more people crossed near Emerson on Thursday night. 

In the bigger picture, more than 400 refugee claimants have illegally crossed the border since last April, according to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), coming predominantly from Somalia and Djibouti.

Under a current agreement with the United States, Canada generally does not allow refugee claims from within the U.S., designating that country a "safe third country."

Migrants who attempt to make a refugee claim at a border crossing are generally turned back to the U.S., with exceptions for unaccompanied minors and people with relatives in Canada or a Canadian work permit.

However, Canada is also a signatory to the United Nation's 1951 Convention on Refugees, which protects a migrant from prosecution for illegally crossing an international border to make a refugee claim.

Once inside the country, a migrant has the right to make a refugee claim in Canada, provided they pass security checks.

Manitoba RCMP commanding officer Scott Kolody says the force has beefed up resources in this border area (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Securing the undefended border

Manitoba RCMP's commanding officer, Assistant Commissioner Scott Kolody, says his force is doing its due diligence on the border and has added more resources to this area.

"Our officers are ​very much ​aware of the trek that they have​ made​, the plight that they've had," he said of claimants.

He says officers typically ​first check on a refugee claimant's medical well-being, and then do interviews, screening and check databases, working with the CBSA. He added they are tracking peak crossing times and constantly readjusting schedules on a daily basis.

But the appeal of warming weather is also top of mind.

"We have the melting snow," he said. "These fields are going to be extremely muddy. There is a danger with that as well." 

Despite the security measures in place, concerns remain about monitoring such a wide-open area. 

The area's Conservative MP, Ted Falk, says he is concerned for the people crossing and the people of Emerson — but also for the border.

In his view, the ability to cross the border illegally and then make inland refugee claims is exploiting what he sees as a legal loophole.

"I'm concerned about the integrity of our border, ​you know, ​that we make sure ​that ​our border is secure,​ and​ that we have the integrity ​that ​we should with people coming and going​ in and​ out of Canada," he said.

Manitoba RCMP say they are collaborating with the American counterparts on the issue of illegal border crossings. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

A simpler way?

Tracking, arresting, and processing so many people is creating a lot of work for both police and border agents.

Jean-Pierre Fortin, the national president for the Customs and Immigration Union, which represents border services agency workers, says it takes approximately eight hours to process a case.

He says if numbers keep increasing, the resources will need to do the same.

"There is a lack of resources right now ​out there ​to​ be able to​ do our job," said Fortin. "We think there could be more staff." 

Greg Janzen, the reeve for the Municipality of Emerson-Franklin, says while many residents are sympathetic to those crossing, he's calling for longer-term changes.

The reeve of the municipality of Emerson-Franklin, Greg Janzen, says he does not believe the flow of migrants over the border will go away any time soon. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

"I think ​we​ need to change the law somewhat," he said. "To make life simple, let [refugee claimants] walk up​ to​ the border and claim refugee status right at the border, ​versus​ jumping​ across​ the border."

​"I'm only a little reeve here in Emerson-Franklin municipality," he joked. "This is way above my pay grade."​

It seems unlikely Canada's policies on refugees will change anytime soon.

While the federal government says it's monitoring the situation, when asked in Parliament's question period this week, federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said "each case is being assessed on its own merits."

He added the flow of migrants from the U.S. "has had no impact on domestic asylum policy."

Back in Emerson, Janzen says he expects to see a lot more migrants.

"This is not going away," Janzen added. "It's going to start happening to other small border communities."


Angela Johnston

CBC Manitoba

Angela Johnston is a network producer with CBC News based in Winnipeg. Email: