Woman faces jail for trying to smuggle would-be refugee into U.S. in trunk of car

A Toronto-area settlement worker could face jail time in the United States after attempting to smuggle a failed refugee claimant across the border in the trunk of her car.

Donna Pham pleaded guilty this week to 1 count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S., court documents show

Court documents show Donna Pham pleaded guilty this week to one count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S., an offence that carries a maximum sentence of five years behind bars and a $250,000 fine. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A Toronto-area settlement worker could face jail time in the United States after attempting to smuggle a failed refugee claimant across the border in the trunk of her car.

Court documents show Donna Pham pleaded guilty this week to one count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S., an offence that carries a maximum sentence of five years behind bars and a $250,000 fine.

However, the documents indicate that because Pham has accepted responsibility and has one or fewer prior convictions, her sentence is likely to range between six and 12 months, with a fine of $4,000 to $40,000.

An agreed statement of facts says Pham and a friend drove to the Rainbow Bridge border crossing in Niagara Falls, NY, just after noon on Jan. 6.

Refugee claim in Canada denied

During the inspection, a border guard found a man in the trunk of Pham's car. The man, identified only as M.P., was a citizen of Senegal and had twice been refused non-immigrant visas at the U.S. consulate in Dakar.

His refugee claim in Canada had also been denied and he was ordered to leave Canada by Jan. 7.

An unidentified co-conspirator in Canada instead arranged for M.P. to be smuggled into the U.S. in Pham's car, the agreed statement of facts said. They met in Canada before Pham and her friend drove to the border so that he could get into the trunk, the statement said.

An affidavit submitted by a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security said border patrol officers found a man concealed under a coat in the trunk. The man's fingerprints matched a profile in a government database, it said.

M.P. told a customs officer he promised to pay Pham US$100 if he made it across the border, the affidavit said.

Pham, who works at the Newcomer Centre of Peel in Mississauga, Ont., told officers she had no idea there was someone in her trunk and didn't know how they would have gotten in, the document said.

Her friend recalled that they were travelling to the Seneca Casino that day and had stopped at a gas station to get coffee and then at the Casino Niagara on the Canadian side of the border, according to the affidavit.

The friend said the two women then went to a Starbucks and the duty free story to shop for perfume before trying to cross into the U.S., the document said.

As a result of her plea, Pham could be barred from entering the U.S. in the future, court documents said, noting any immigration consequences will be determined in a separate legal proceeding.