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Border Patrol responds to increasing numbers of dangerous, cold-weather border crossing attempts

The Portal, N.D., Port of Entry is shown here. Northern border stations are dealing with humanitarian issues created as legal migrants in the United States seek to flee to Canada in adverse weather conditions. Submitted photo

MINOT, N.D.—The rescue of a Nigerian family making a bitterly cold break for the Canadian border near Portal in January is a scenario that's being played out more often than U.S Border Patrol agents would like this winter.

Grand Forks Sector Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke said there's no good numbers on how many people have sought to cross the border to seek asylum in Canada. However, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has seen an increase in attempted illegal crossings in risky weather situations.

"Specifically, our message here is, as much as anything, a humanitarian message," Heitke said in a media teleconference Wednesday.

In Manitoba, groups that specialize in helping refugees say the pace of arrivals has quickened since Donald Trump became president and banned travel from seven majority-Muslim countries. Refugees have said Trump's order and anti-Muslim campaign rhetoric as the main reasons for going north.

Rita Chahal, executive director of Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, has stated her group normally sees 50 to 60 refugees from the U.S. each year. But The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said that more than 40 have been picked up at the border near Emerson, Manitoba — about 80 miles north of Grand Forks — in just the last two weekends. Chahal said most are natives of Somalia, which was in Trump's travel ban, and from Ghana, Djibouti, Nigeria and Burundi.

On Jan. 13, five Nigerians in the United States legally, including three children, received emergency medical treatment in Kenmare and Minot for frostbite injuries sustained from bitter cold after the Burke County Sheriff's Department and Border Patrol agents rescued them from a field near Portal.

Heitke said individuals looking to cross the North Dakota and Minnesota borders into Canada come from all over the country. Some fly in from other countries and drive to the border to cross within a day or two. Because of proximity, the largest number are coming from southern Minnesota, particularly the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. The Pembina crossing between Grand Forks and Emerson attracts the largest numbers, but the problem exists at other North Dakota ports and across America's entire northern border, he said.

Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota works with refugee programs in North Dakota. Shirley Dykshoorn, vice president for senior and humanitarian services at LSSND, said the agency's clients are not among those seeking asylum in Canada.

"It appears to us that the cases are not coming from resettlements in North Dakota but they are using the route on I-29 to get to Winnipeg, coming from elsewhere," she said.

Heitke said the Border Patrol doesn't know all the reasons why people to flee to Canada. They are in the United States legally under various types of visas. In some cases, they may have come to the United States as refugees in search of asylum, only to receive letters saying asylum status was denied. Hearings are scheduled in which they can still be granted status, and if that fails, they can appeal. Although the letter alone doesn't affect legal status in the U.S., many recipients are fearful and are choosing to try for asylum in Canada.

"It's not a new issue," Heitke said. "There's been more attention to it recently, but we have been keeping an eye on this issue back to 2010. Basically, what we are seeing is growing numbers of individuals crossing illegally into Canada from the Minnesota or North Dakota side."

U.S. border agents who observe individuals attempting to illegally cross into Canada will alert Canadian agents, Heitke said. On the U.S. side of the border, no crime has been committed when the individuals are in this country legally. Intervention by U.S. border agents usually comes at the request of local law enforcement to assist individuals who are lost or are endangered by weather.

Heitke said the Border Patrol has not changed its ground or air enforcement practices as a result of the increase in attempted illegal crossings. The agency is working to get the message to migrant settlement communities about the dangers of winter, though.

The agency also has been investigating to determine the identity of individuals or organizations that are aiding people in getting to the border. It is not illegal to provide a ride to a particular location to a person legally in the country. If the person is endangered as the result of being left to the elements, that is a matter for local law enforcement.

"It definitely would be something that we would consult with our state's attorney on and look at the totality of the circumstances," said Burke County Sheriff Jeremy Grohs of Bowbells. "When we have individuals that have subjected others to harm or put their safety at risk, whether due to weather or elements, whatever may be, we have to take that seriously because, ultimately, it's putting the life of not only adults but also children in danger."

Grohs said he believes local law enforcement and the Border Patrol can increase their efforts to work more closely on intervention and prevention. The January incident involving the Nigerian family showed how critical cooperation is, he said.

"We were very fortunate we were able to locate them when we did. If we would have gone for another hour, I don't think we would probably have had the same outcome," Grohs said. "It could have very easily went from search and rescue to a recovery."