Manitoba·Video

Bodies found frozen at U.S. border highlight lengths of human smuggling efforts, desperation of those crossing

As temperatures hovered around -35 with the wind chill, why did four people — two adults, a teenager and a baby, believed to be members of the same family from India — end up in the Manitoba field near the Canada-U.S. border where they froze to death this week?

‘People do crazy things for hope,’ says Minnesota-based immigration lawyer Ayodele Ojo

Four people, one an infant, were found dead in a Manitoba field near the Canada-U.S. border, on Wednesday. A U.S. Homeland Security agent believes they may have been victims of a wider human smuggling operation. (Submitted by RCMP)

The question is a complex one.

As temperatures hovered around -35 with the wind chill, why did four people — two adults, a teenager and a baby, believed to be members of the same family from India — end up in the Manitoba field near the Canada-U.S. border where they froze to death this week?

For Minnesota immigration lawyer Ayodele Ojo, what he's seen in his work makes one thing clear.

"People do crazy things for hope. What drives them is hope," he said. "Because they believe they will make it. They have been told it is possible."

In this case, the people found dead may have been victims of a wider human smuggling operation, U.S. Department of Homeland Security special agent John Stanley said in an affidavit.

Before the four bodies were found near the town of Emerson, U.S. Border Patrol officers had stopped a 15-passenger van just south of the international border.

Inside were two undocumented Indian nationals, who were detained. Five others were also arrested nearby around the same time. It's believed those seven and the four who died in Manitoba were all part of the same group, but had become separated.

Ayodele Ojo is an immigration lawyer in Minnesota. He says people who risk their safety to cross the border into another country are often motivated by hope for a better life. (Zoom)

The driver of the van, 47-year-old Steve Shand of Florida, was charged with human smuggling. Shand is also suspected of being part of three other recent smuggling incidents at the same location where he was arrested, the affidavit said.

A few years ago, irregular border crossings were common in Manitoba, as asylum seekers fled the U.S. for Canada amid fears of widespread deportations shortly after Donald Trump became president.

Those incidents appear to have declined in recent years, Manitoba RCMP Assistant Commissioner Jane MacLatchy said this week.

U.S. seen as desirable

But Homeland Security special agent Tonya Price said it's still too soon to say if this recent string of smuggling incidents is part of a growing trend in the opposite direction.

"It's not nearly as prevalent as it is on the southern border, but we certainly are seeing it here on the northern border and this is an example and certainly an unfortunate one at that," Price said. 

She said law enforcement recognizes the issue and is trying to stamp it out by stopping known smuggling routes from being used. But she couldn't reveal any updates on their investigation, including the status of the seven alleged border crossers who were detained on Wednesday.

Tonya Price is a special agent in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. She says it's still too soon to say if the recent string of smuggling incidents that the people who died in Manitoba appear to be linked to is part of a growing trend. (Zoom)

In general, she said the people who risk a dangerous journey for a better life are desperate.

"The reality is, people from other countries want to live the American dream and they want to come here because they know that there's more possibilities here, there's more job availability, their families are often here," she said.

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Few details have been made public about the Indian nationals taken into custody in the U.S. But Stanley's affidavit said they speak little or no English and are fluent in Gujarati.

According to the 2016 Census — the most recent data available — 63,555 people across Canada and 2,200 in Manitoba said the western Indian language was the one they used most often at home. 

Akhil Shah, president of the Friends of Gujarat non-profit organization based in Brampton, Ont., said while both Canada and the U.S. are seen as go-to countries for immigrants, many Gujaratis are more keen to move to the States — particularly when they see their friends and neighbours from back home doing so.

"They believe that that's the only country that has a lot of opportunities," Shah said.

Akhil Shah is the president of the Friends of Gujarat non-profit organization based in Brampton, Ont. He says many Gujaratis are more keen to move to the U.S. over Canada, especially when they see their friends and neighbours from back home doing so. (Zoom)

"And there's [an] envy factor that [makes them think], 'That person can go to … that particular country. Why not me?' So they would land here and then they try to, you know, go back to or travel to [the] U.S. and migrate there, right? That's their motivation. 

"But they don't realize the fact that Canada has equal opportunities, right? And they can make their life here, too."

Not aware of risks

Shah said he wonders if the group of people who allegedly crossed the border from Manitoba into the U.S. on foot — or the four who died — had been fully aware of the risks of making that kind of journey in such cold weather.

"They may not have realized the fact that walking so long a distance is not practically feasible," he said.

Nalini Reddy said that might be what bothers her the most about the case. 

The Winnipeg immigration and refugee lawyer said the incident appears to be an example of a phenomenon where people seek the help of "representatives who are not on the up and up" who create fraudulent applications to help them get to Canada, with the goal of getting into the U.S. illegally and disappearing into the underground economy.

Nalini Reddy is an immigration and refugee lawyer in Winnipeg, Man. She says she fears the people who died near the Canada-U.S. border in Manitoba may not have undestood the risks of crossing a border on foot in extremely cold temperatures. (Zoom)

"There is unfortunately a sector that is interested in making money off the back of people who are desperate to get here in one way or another, and sometimes that includes fraudulent means," Reddy said.

But the people buying those orchestrated entries into a country may not understand a lot of the details involved in it, she said, including what it means to cross a border on foot in extreme winter temperatures.

"This one fact alone is so incredibly dangerous and unknown to people," Reddy said.

"It really troubles me that there are people profiting off of schemes like this."

With files from Ian Froese, Tess Ha and Cameron MacIntosh

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