Out in the Open

An influx of border crossings in Manitoba forced people to get 'off the fence' about immigration

Earlier this year, Emerson was one of the so-called border towns in the spotlight for illegal border crossings. What’s happening now in the small community and to one of the asylum seekers who did that crossing?
February 26, 2017, eight migrants from Somalia cross into Canada from the United States by walking down this train track into the town of Emerson, Manitoba. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

"I don't think people realize how close Emerson is to the border," says Emerson, Manitoba local Sharon Cory.

"In fact, we have a herd of deer that cross regularly from Minnesota and Pembina [North Dakota] into Emerson...All of a sudden they're in a field in Minnesota and then you look and they're by the hotel about 20 feet away in Emerson.  

"[P]eople say, 'Oh, look at the asylum seekers again.' It's just a joke that they make here."

It's not a new phenomenon, but this year we heard a lot about illegal border crossings.

In part, it's because some of the stories are harrowing, like the men who lost fingers to frostbite while making the trek from the United States to Canada. 

According to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, more than 14,000 refugee claims were made by people who crossed at unguarded border areas. 

Most of the illegal crossings have been happening in Quebec and Manitoba. In Manitoba, the so-called border town of Emerson - bordering North Dakota and Minnesota - was thrust into the spotlight. 
Baba Issaka (Courtesy of Baba Issaka)

"There was definitely tension in the community for three or four months, probably because there was so much attention all at once and it was steady. Regular interviews with our Reeve. Regular interviews with councilors. Regular occurrences of media stopping people on the streets….So, it was always in your face," says Sharon.

Sharon describes Emerson as a place where people are reticent to talk politics, but, she says  this issue forced people "off the fence." The lines were divided between those who were supportive of people coming over seeking asylum and those who thought they shouldn't be crossing illegally.

"I have a hard time describing people as illegal...In a global sense, we belong anywhere we feel safe," says Sharon.

​Baba Issaka came to Canada from the United States at Emerson, Manitoba.

In May, he took a cab as close to the border as possible and walked across, jumping into bushes so he won't be seen.

"Yah, it is scary but you have to do it...so your life will be saved...Because that kind of risk is more good than the risk I'd take back home," says Baba.

Baba left his home country of Ghana in 2013. He feared persecution as a bi-sexual man. Under Ghanaian law, engaging in same-sex relations can land you in prison. LGBT people have also reported facing discrimination, violence and harassment by police.

But before he stepped across the border into Canada, Baba traveled from Ghana to South Africa, to Brazil, to Panama, to Costa Rica, to Nicaragua, to Honduras, to Guatemala, to Mexico, and to the U.S.

Baba tried to stay in America but the government rejected his refugee claim. He says it was because they needed more proof he would be in danger in Ghana.

Baba has filed a refugee claim in Canada and is currently waiting for a hearing date. He recently received his worker's permit and he's trying to find a job in Winnipeg, where he now lives.

"I'm having a tough time for me. For now, I don't know. [Are] they're going to accept [me]? No? Yes?... I don't know...I can't sleep… Anything can happen."

Greg Janzen, the Reeve of the Municipality of Emerson-Franklin says he wishes people wouldn't cross at unguarded points.

"I still would like to see them come in the legal way, do the proper paperwork," he says. 

"But you still feel sympathetic when people are coming in the middle of the night when it's twenty below." 

Though people are still crossing, at around 80 a month in the summer, the Reeve says locals are quieter now about what they see and what's going on. They don't get all of the media attention again.

But those numbers might increase again after the Trump administration announced in November that it would end the Temporary Protected Status it granted Haitians after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The designation allowed Haitian immigrants to live and work legally in the U.S.

"Through all these asylum seekers or border jumpers, whatever you want to call them, the town changed for a couple of months there. I wouldn't say for the worst but it was challenged. But, I do believe we pulled through it quite well. And, we look back and say, 'Well, we lived through that storm. If it happens again, we know what we're doing,'" says the Reeve.  

"But if we get the numbers like Quebec, we're screwed."