Skip to content

Winter weather, vast expanse make patrolling Canada-U.S. border a daunting challenge

Recent Manitoba deaths brought issue to the forefront for Canadians and U.S. citizens alike

A bleak panorama of frozen, windblown prairie extends in every direction behind Katy Siemer as she points north, past a barren stand of trees to a pipeline compressor station a few hundred metres away in Manitoba.

The U.S. Border Patrol agent is standing alongside a similar facility in Minnesota that she says undocumented migrants use as a meeting spot when sneaking over from Canada, usually under cover of darkness.

At the moment, it’s a blindingly bright, sunny day, beautiful in every respect but the -29 C temperature.

“Oh, this is very mild,” says Siemer, the deputy patrol agent in charge of the station in nearby Pembina, N.D., nary a trace of sarcasm in her voice.

“It’s about -20 degrees (Fahrenheit) right now, but the wind isn’t blowing, so it doesn’t feel that bad.”

In other words, Siemer has seen worse. Like last week, when RCMP in Canada recovered the frozen bodies of a family from India. Investigators believe they were part of a larger group of undocumented Indian nationals that agents encountered on the U.S. side shortly before the bodies were discovered.

Authorities say the family, which included a teen and a young child, likely became disoriented as bitter winds created blinding, blizzard-like conditions before they fell victim to the fearsome cold.

That same night, just up the gravel road, agents pulled over a rented passenger van and found two more Indian nationals inside, along with a stockpile of provisions that included bottled water, juice boxes and snacks.

Steve Shand, 47, of Deltona, Fla., now faces human-smuggling charges. A Minnesota judge agreed Monday to release Shand on an appearance bond, subject to release conditions.

The tragedy captured the imaginations of Canadians and U.S. citizens alike and underscored the challenge border guards like Siemer and colleague David Marcus confront every day as they patrol the vast, unforgiving hinterland.

“There’s nothing really here for anyone to take shelter in,” says Siemer.

“It’s difficult as Border Patrol also because there’s just nothing. There’s no infrastructure, we don’t have cameras — there’s no way to be out here other than just to drive out here and see what you can see.”

That makes the local residents of the small towns in the area — Walhalla, N.D. (Pop. 1,064), Pembina (pop. 485), Saint Vincent, Minn. (pop. 64), — a vital component of the agency’s strategy.

“Our agents are incredibly vigilant and do a phenomenal job,” Marcus says.

“But the public, they know. They drive these roads every day, they’re in these areas every day doing recreational activities, so they definitely know when things are out of place.”

Government-issue SUVs are generally the vehicles of choice for U.S. Border Patrol agents, although they also have access to a fleet of snowmobiles and ATVs kitted out with snow treads when they need them.

Snowshoes, too, are standard-issue equipment.

Investigators say the deaths are likely linked to a larger human smuggling operation — a phenomenon that’s a fact of daily life in the southern U.S., but far less common up north.

In fact, it’s a lot more frequent than most people on either side of the border might realize.

“It’s not unheard of to see something every month or every couple of weeks,” Siemer says.

“It really kind of depends on circumstances. The season definitely has a lot to do with it as well. It’s not the southern border — definitely not — but we definitely see things every couple of weeks, depending on what’s going on.”

Indeed, Department of Justice officials released details Monday of a similar human-smuggling case, this time in northwest Montana near the Rocky Mountain boundary between Alberta and British Columbia.

Two Seattle residents face charges after U.S. agents stopped a vehicle in a remote area near the border and discovered six people inside who admitted to being in the country illegally.

The arrests were made early on Jan. 19, the very same day that agents encountered the group in Minnesota.

“It’s not necessarily that the numbers are going up, it’s just we’re kind of getting back to a normal posture that we’ve always kind of seen before (the pandemic),” Siemer says.

“It’s not quite so blatant as it is on the southern border, but it’s still absolutely happening every day on the northern border.”

Experts aren’t entirely sure what to make of it, other than the fact that people clearly want to come to the U.S., and are willing to do so by any means necessary, whether it’s in the wilds of Minnesota or the Rio Grande Valley.

The numbers up north will never compare to the sheer volume at the southern border, where agents encountered more than 420 people in various groups over the weekend near Brownsville, Tex.

But the causes are the same — and the solutions just about as effective.

“The danger is that you start replicating the same approach that’s been taken on the southern border, and it’s not actually had the intended result, ever,” said Regina Jefferies, an expert in immigration and refugee law at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.

“It’s more complex than just, ‘We need more resources to put people on snowmobiles to patrol these really remote spaces of farmland.’”

Both the U.S. and Canada need to think about the issue not only in terms of “pull factors,” she said — those elements of life in North America that might attract irregular migration — but also “push factors” in the form of foreign-policy decisions that compel migrants to flee their home countries.

Migration will be a central topic of discussion at this summer’s Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, a meeting of continental leaders that takes place every three years to talk about issues of mutual interest.

Far from a geographically distant observer, Canada has a contribution to make to that discussion, Jefferies said.

“Canada has a system in terms of its humanitarian system in particular, that’s really looked at, you know, as sort of closer to a model that other countries might aspire to,” she said.

“Canada has a voice in terms of also thinking of ways to allow people to move that don’t require those types of risky journeys.”

—James McCarten, The Canadian Press

RELATED: Mystery persists in Canada-U. S. border tragedy; accused human smuggler freed on bond