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Border Patrol agents face weather, wide-open spaces while on patrol

Agents at the Pembina Border Station patrol a stretch of the border that runs from North Dakota through Minnesota. It's a job that can be 95% dull 5% dangerous.

030922 Border Patrol.jpg
Katie Seimer, deputy patrol agent in charge of the Pembina Border Patrol station, and David Marcus, border patrol agent who manages strategic communications for the Grand Forks Sector, show the Herald reporters the rural area near the Canadian border where Steve Shand was arrested on January 19, 2022. Shand was arrested for smuggling Indian nationals into the country. A family of four died while attempting to cross the border.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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PEMBINA, N.D. – U.S. Border Patrol agents in the Grand Forks sector cover a lot of ground on any given day. Severe winter weather can complicate their mission to prevent illegal entry into the nation.

Sometimes, as winter sets in high on the northern Plains, their mission turns into a rescue.

Such was the case on Jan. 19, when agents apprehended a man who has since been charged with human smuggling. Agents arrested Steven Shand, from Florida, when they discovered him driving in a passenger van with two Indian nationals, later determined to have crossed into the country illegally between the Pembina, North Dakota, and Lancaster, Minnesota, ports of entry.

That day, agents encountered a group of five other Indian nationals shortly thereafter. The second group apparently was trying to find shelter inside a natural gas facility along a little-used road about a mile from the U.S.-Canada border. One person in the group was carrying items needed for a small child, meaning agents had to pull out all the stops to initiate a search in sub-zero temperatures as a ground blizzard swirled.

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Ultimately, that search led to the discovery — by Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers — of a family of four who had frozen to death on the Canada side of the border.

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Katie Siemer, deputy patrol agent in charge of the Pembina Border Patrol station, described a sinking feeling when she learned of the possibility of a child being out in those conditions.

“It was a pretty terrible feeling, to be honest,” Siemer told the Grand Forks Herald. “We'd hoped that in fact there wasn't a child out here in those kinds of weather conditions. … Unfortunately, after a couple of hours, the subjects were found on the Canadian side, deceased.”

Shand later was released from custody, with orders to appear before the U.S District Court in Minnesota.

This week, Siemer and Border Patrol Agent David Marcus escorted two Herald reporters to the area where Shand was apprehended. Conditions couldn’t have been more different than those on Jan. 19 – this week, the sun was out and temperatures were above zero. Even so, walking across the border is a dangerous proposition in such an isolated area. There are no businesses or homes nearby and the gas plant is not always manned.

“(It’s) not a good place to cross,” Marcus said.

It’s an area known by Border Patrol agents to be a place where people have tried to cross into the United States. According to an affidavit in the Shand case filed by John Stanley, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, Border Patrol agents reported two other incidents of people being picked up by a vehicle on Dec. 12 and 22.

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A marker at the U.S. and Canadian border pokes out of a snowbank March 7, 2022 at Noyes, MN.

Agents monitor that location, but they have a vast territory to cover. Agents in the Pembina area patrol about 100 miles of border across North Dakota and Minnesota. Marcus said the Grand Forks sector spans 861 miles, from the Montana-North Dakota border through Minnesota. That span is patrolled by about 200 agents.

Agents use a variety of methods to monitor the border. There are trail cameras in some areas, and drones and fixed-wing aircraft based out of the Border Patrol facility west of Grand Forks on U.S. Highway 2 can fly the border as well. Those aircraft were used in the search for the family that recently died trying to cross into the U.S.

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One issue is vast stretches of land, often farmland, where there is little cover to install electronic devices. Agents physically patrol those areas, and document their findings. Sometimes that means examining, measuring and photographing footprints in the snow or dirt. The same goes for tire tracks, and agents need to determine the age of those tracks — not an easy task when the wind blows.

Given the open area they patrol, agents rely on people who live in border communities. Siemer said agents work to maintain good relationships with residents and business owners, who tend to have a feel for when something is out of place.

“The local communities are our eyes and ears,” Siemer said. “We can't physically cover a lot of the area that we need to cover because it’s so vast.”

Previously, Marcus told the Herald that arrests of people coming across the border illegally are fairly consistent throughout the year,regardless of the season. In 2018, the Border Patrol reported 461 arrests in the Grand Forks sector, with 412 arrests the following year. In 2020, it appears the pandemic may have cooled things off as 227 arrests were reported.

That makes for some long days patrolling a wide area where an incident may or may not happen. Siemer said the job can be 95% routine and 5% dangerous. Agents need to remain alert, she said, and they also must cope with the mental aftermath of potentially traumatic incidents.

“I think everybody handles it a little bit differently,” Siemer said. “It takes a toll on anyone. It's just whether or not you internalize it versus realizing that that's just kind of the nature of the job, unfortunately.”

Both Siemer and Marcus say they like their jobs, and likely will stay until they retire. Both have more than a decade on the job, and in areas where border incursions dwarf what happens along the U.S./Canada border – Siemer previously served in Arizona and Marcus in Texas. Both said they believe in the mission of the Border Patrol, and Siemer likened it to being in a family.

Marcus agreed.

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“I do like this job quite a bit. It’s a great career,” he said. “As ... Siemer said, it's a big family. It's a big family but sometimes it doesn't feel like it's a big family.”

Related Topics: U.S.-CANADIAN BORDER
Adam Kurtz is the community editor for the Grand Forks Herald. He covers higher education and other topics in Grand Forks County and the city.

Kurtz joined the Herald in July 2019. He covered business and county government topics before covering higher education and some military topics.

Tips and story ideas are welcome. Get in touch with him at akurtz@gfherald.com, or DM at @ByAdamKurtz.

Desk: 701-780-1110
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