With all eyes on the U.S. southern border, illegal crossings from Canada quietly increase

Mexicans wanting to illegally enter the U.S. are flying over it first, landing in Canada and then walking south across the northern border — sometimes with the help of human smugglers, say the RCMP and U.S. Border Patrol.

U.S. Border Patrol affidavit details Mexicans paying smugglers to cross border

More people are crossing illegally into the U.S. from Canada, according to numbers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. (CBC)

Mexicans wanting to illegally enter the U.S. are flying over it first, landing in Canada and then walking south across the northern border — sometimes with the help of human smugglers, according to the RCMP and U.S. Border Patrol (USBP).

And the numbers of people doing that are going up, judging by how many people were apprehended for crossing the Canada-U.S. border illegally this year, compared to previous years.

In an area called the Swanton sector, which covers a part of New York State, Vermont and New Hampshire, 121 people were apprehended in the U.S. for crossing illegally from Canada in June, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the USBP.

That's compared to less than half that number in the two previous years — 45 in June 2017 and 60 in June 2016.

Some of those who are arrested after crossing the border illegally are held in state prisons like this one, Northwest State Correctional Facility, in Vermont. (CBC)

While border integrity is a priority for the RCMP, the federal police force says it can't do anything to stop Mexicans from walking out of Canada because it is not illegal for them to come into Canada in the first place.

That's the case since December 2016, when Canada abolished visa requirements for visiting Mexicans.

"The smuggling is the offence — or helping cross," said RCMP Sgt. Camille Habel, a media officer in Quebec. "That is what we investigate."

"Recently we've seen cases where there would be one lone individual that was helping a group of individuals wanting to cross," she said.

RCMP Sgt. Camille Habel said border integrity is a priority for the force, but it's not an offence for a Mexican visitor to Canada to leave, it's the smuggling. 'That is what we investigate,' she said. (CBC)

Paid thousands to smugglers

Habel described how the RCMP helped the USBP in a smuggling investigation earlier this month, ramping up patrols in the area where the crossing was supposed to take place after receiving a tip.

What happened is detailed in a July 13 affidavit filed by USBP agent Nicholas Carte.

Carte described another agent stopping an SUV carrying four Mexican men without immigration papers near the Vermont border late on the night of July 12.

He said the men "appeared to be soaking wet to about the knee, including their shoes."

Carte said the men told him that they had been dropped off on the Canadian side of the border then told to cross over to the U.S. on foot. They were then picked up by another vehicle on the U.S. side. 

They told him they had paid thousands of dollars to the men who orchestrated their journey.

Carte said one of the men he interviewed told him that after flying to Canada on July 6, he was approached by two men in a park who asked him if he was interested in crossing into the U.S.

That man told Carte he paid $1,000 in Canada and was supposed to pay another $2,000 later on.

Another of the men told him that he was supposed to work in New York City to pay off a debt of $7,000 to the smuggler, though the man wasn't sure if what he owed was in U.S. or Canadian dollars, or Mexican pesos.

Activists march past the White House on June 20 to protest the Trump administration's approach to illegal border crossings. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

USBP agent Richard Ross, who runs the border patrol station in Newport, Vt., said such smuggling cases are increasing.

"There has been a definite uptick, and we have seen increasing group sizes last fall, where we apprehended a smuggling event that was 14 individuals," he said.  

He said these are "some very sophisticated operations."

'Grim' treatment

Ross said not all border-crossers his service is catching are from Mexico.

"We have seen a number of different nationalities — Romanians, Mexicans, some Haitians and Hondurans, Guatemalans, Salvadorians."

Jay Diaz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, says the change in how border-crossers are prosecuted is 'concerning.' (CBC)

Jay Diaz, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Vermont, said in the northern U.S., as in the south, the treatment of illegal border-crossers is "grim."

In the past, those who entered the country unlawfully could be held until their deportation, but they had the opportunity to post bail. 

Now, with pressure from the federal government, Diaz said, illegal immigrants are being held in state prisons, sometimes indefinitely, often alongside people sentenced for serious, violent crimes.

"This change in the commitment of criminal prosecution is concerning," he said. "These cases could go on for who knows how long."

"They're just sitting in Vermont prisons."

Ross however, said that there hasn't been a change to the procedure.

"It's always been our goal to apply the law to its fullest extent," he said. 

Diaz said illegal border-crossers are taking the risk of ending up in a U.S. state prison, instead of just staying in Canada, likely because they already have family in the U.S. or they believe they have a better chance of finding a job. 

He said that Vermont, for instance, has a lot of migrant dairy workers.

"Most others won't work there because of the difficulty of the work," he said.  

With files from CBC's Jaela Bernstien