26 March 2022
ST. VINCENT, Minn. — A 15-passenger van with Missouri plates trundled down a dirt road in a January blizzard, miles from anything except the Canadian boundary. To a U.S. Border Patrol agent monitoring the frozen farm fields of far northwestern Minnesota, it was suspicious but not surprising.
He already knew this was a spot for human smuggling.
Weeks earlier, authorities on the Canadian side of the border had discovered a backpack containing a price tag in rupees, India’s currency. Border Patrol agents saw footprints in the snow that day, then twice more in the next month. They knew something illegal was going on.
But that January morning, they didn’t expect the gruesome discovery they made later as a result of stopping the van: a family of four, frozen to death just yards short of the border — a tragedy that made international headlines.
Though attention has long focused on illegal crossings of the southern border, the path of least resistance for some smuggling operations is through the north, where the border is twice as long with an eighth as many agents patrolling.
Agents caught smugglers bringing a small stream of Nigerians into Canada a few hundred miles west of here several years ago. Recently, they have seen a string of Indian nationals and Romanians crossing into the United States.
While traversing miles of barren tundra or swampy forests may sound ineffective and dangerous, Border Patrol agents say northern crossings are more common than Americans would guess.
“We’re just looking for things that look different: footprints, vehicle tracks, a torn-down fence,” said Scott Good, chief patrol agent of the Grand Forks sector, which covers 861 miles of the northern border with fewer than 200 agents. “You’re really in the middle of nowhere, lots of places to get lost, no phone signal. It’s a rough, treacherous place.”
The Canadian border does not have anywhere near the number of illegal crossings as the Mexican border; of nearly 1 million U.S. Border Patrol arrests since Oct. 1, only 3% have been on the northern border. But authorities can only guess how many more people evade detection.
The human tragedy these agents began to uncover when they saw the van with two Indian nationals in back underscores a hidden truth about America’s forgotten border.
That subzero January morning, agents arrested the two Indians as well as the driver, a 47-year-old from Florida named Steven Shand. Then agents spotted five more Indian nationals walking toward them and brought them to warmth. One stopped breathing several times as agents sped her to an ambulance; she survived after being flown to St. Paul for frostbite.
A man in the group said they’d been told to walk toward a light — a small natural gas plant amid the American prairie — then they trudged through snowdrifts for 11 hours. After figuring out that others had been separated from the group, agents used a search plane and a drone to look for them. But it was Canadian authorities on a snowcat who made the heartbreaking discovery of the Patel family, frozen to death just 15 yards inside Canada: Jagdish, 39; Vaishaliben, 37; Vihangi, an 11-year-old girl; and Dharmik, a 3-year-old boy.
“When you think there might be a child out there, you get angry. You feel helpless,” said Kathryn Siemer, deputy patrol agent in charge of the Border Patrol station in Pembina, N.D. “It just goes to show, the smuggling organizations don’t have any value of life. They’re numbers to them. They’re money to them.”
America’s two land borders seem like night and day: A constant daily flow of illegal traffic down south vs. a trickle up north, extreme heat vs. extreme cold, miles of border wall, observation towers and x-shaped metal barriers vs. miles of natural barriers or open prairie, a fraught relationship between the U.S. and Mexico vs. a generations-long partnership between the U.S. and Canada.
But no matter which border, a Border Patrol agent’s job is surprisingly similar.
On the Canadian border, agents look for footprints in snow or mud, a hole in a fence or a rock painted orange as a meeting point — anything that could hint at illegal crossings. Down south, agents pull giant tires behind trucks to smooth dirt roads so footprints are more easily noticed.
“It’s almost a game of cat and mouse — we change one thing, they change another,” Siemer said.
At the southern border, work is reactive — when she worked in Arizona, Siemer would sometimes process 200 immigrants who’d crossed illegally during one shift. Agents in the eight Border Patrol offices in North Dakota and Minnesota have time to be proactive, visiting farmers over coffee, reminding them to keep an eye out. They enlist hunters and trappers, training them to call if anything seems odd.
Increased attention to illegal immigration has spotlighted U.S. Customs and Border Protection, but not always in a positive way, with social media erupting over headlines about children in cages.
But the Border Patrol’s top goals include national necessities, such as stopping terrorism. If that seems exceedingly rare, consider the case of Patrik Mathews, a white supremacist and former member of the Canadian military. The FBI arrested him in Delaware in 2020 on suspicion of plotting a mass killing. His car had been found just north of the border near Roseau in August 2019; it is suspected he crossed into the United States near there.
“The biggest thing is knowing who is coming across and why they are coming across,” said Mike Johnson, patrol agent in charge of the Border Patrol’s Warroad office.
Many resources go to disrupting drug cartels and human-trafficking organizations. Americans are used to seeing those illegal activities at the southern border, but they rarely hear about it up north. Even more rare are instances like the recent deaths on the Canadian border.
The Indian family who froze to death in January seemed an anomaly, but their journey was more familiar to people in their village in the western Indian state of Gujarat.
Jagdish Patel held a clerical job at a school, worked at a clothing business and returned to his home village of Dingucha to help on his father’s farm. He struggled to support his family, according to Gujarati journalist Janvi Sonaiya. Like hundreds more in their community, the Patels chased the American dream as “non-resident Indians.” Their village is known as an “NRI village” because half its 3,300 residents live abroad. Billboards advertise help to migrate to America with the hope of joining a network of Gujaratis who run many small U.S. businesses.
“Children in our village are raised with the dream of moving to the U.S. or Canada — and why not?” said Mathurji Thakor, elected head of the village.
Illegal crossings of Indians into the United States have spiked in the past decade, from fewer than 200 arrests in 2007 to nearly 10,000 in 2018, according to Border Patrol records. Most pass through the southern border because it’s far easier to obtain a Mexican visa, but there’s been an uptick in the north. In 2019, 339 Indians were apprehended crossing from Canada.
Pandemic travel restrictions have seen unauthorized crossings drop precipitously. In 2018, the Grand Forks office logged 461 illegal crossing arrests. Last year, that dipped to 85. But relaxed travel restrictions likely will result in an upswing; the U.N. Refugee Agency estimates 82 million displaced people are seeking safe haven globally, and millions more refugees are being created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
That does not change the strategy of the 2,000 agents patrolling 4,000 miles of northern border: Vigilance amid monotony.
On a recent morning, Johnson, the patrol agent in charge at Warroad, looked out the window of an SUV going west on State Highway 11, the nearest highway to the border. Miles of flat nothingness passed. Two bald eagles feasted on a deer carcass. Farm fields, soon to be planted with corn and soybeans and sugar beets, were filled with ponds of recently melted snow.
Johnson told a story. In 2017, when he worked out of Portal, N.D., agents found abandoned suitcases in the desolate prairie. Investigators learned a smuggling ring was flying Nigerians to Disney World, then to Minneapolis, then illegally transporting them from North Dakota into Canada. Agents increased their patrols.
One winter day, local police saw five Nigerians — including three children — struggling in a minus-53-degree wind chill. Border Patrol agents sped to them on snowmobiles. All had frostbite and hypothermia, and the youngest, about 15 months old, was nearly dead. Though one adult ended up having both arms amputated, all survived.
This is the part of the job that gives Border Patrol agents the greatest pride. In fiscal year 2021, Border Patrol agents rescued more than 12,000 people. Rescues range from potential drownings in the Rio Grande River to saving immigrants trapped in car trunks in desert heat to the five Indians found in frigid northwestern Minnesota. Since Oct. 1, the beginning of the new federal fiscal year, Border Patrol agents have rescued nearly 7,000 more people.
The biggest heartbreak for agents in Warroad and Pembina, N.D. — the offices nearest the January tragedy — is that they couldn’t rescue the Patel family and add four more rescues to that count.
Gulam Jeelani, former Star Tribune writer, contributed reporting from India.