Thursday, February 22, 2024

What’s a ‘southbounder’? And what are they doing in the woods near the Canada-U.S. border?

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What propels newcomers to Canada’s borders? How can we manage the humanitarian challenges and tap into the promise of new arrivals? The Star series Crossroads looks at the changing landscape facing migrants, law enforcement and policymakers.

MONTREAL—The RCMP calls them “southbounders.”

They follow a perilous route that leads most often from Central America to Canada and then across the border to the United States.

According to officials on both sides of the border, there has been a sharp and inexplicable surge in the number of people making the dangerous journey in recent months, trekking through snow-covered woods, often under the cover of night and in sub-zero temperatures, sometimes with young children in tow.

There were 367 people arrested after crossing into the U.S. in January alone — an average of 12 per day, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, which has reportedly redeployed two dozen additional agents to deal with the surging numbers.

One night this week, Mounties patrolling a portion of the border between Quebec and the United States were called upon to rescue a couple and their young child who had become lost in the thick woods that straddle the border.

The family was located but had to be taken to hospital to be treated for symptoms of hypothermia, as was one of the officers, said Sgt. Charles Poirier, an RCMP spokesperson.

Last week, a similar search-and-rescue mission was launched for a single man in the same area.

“They found him lying in the snow, face down,” Poirier said. “If he hadn’t been found, he would have been dead.”

Policing what was once celebrated as the world’s longest undefended border will be one of the main topics of conversation when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomes U.S. President Joe Biden to Canada this month.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, America’s northern border was viewed as a vulnerability from which terrorists might enter and attack the U.S. homeland. That led to an immigration treaty known as the Safe Third Country Agreement, which obligated asylum seekers to make their claims in whichever of the two countries they first reached.

More recently, the tables turned as Roxham Road in Quebec became the unofficial crossing point for tens of thousands of migrants looking to enter Canada to avoid American deportation orders and bypass the restrictions of the Safe Third Country Agreement.

The province of Quebec complains that this has resulted in a wave of asylum seekers in need of shelter, health care and social services that outstrips the province’s ability to deliver.

But this newer phenomenon, in which people are beating a path from countries such as Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and India to Canada, and then using this country as an entry point into the U.S., is sure to add a twist to the impending talk between the two leaders.

The Star has reviewed the details of two dozen U.S. court cases of people arrested and charged with transporting and harbouring individuals who have crossed the border illegally.

With little exception, they follow a well-rehearsed script — one exemplified by three Mexican women and a child discovered in the back of a rented white Toyota Corolla last June during an immigration stop just south of the border.

All four had flown to Toronto, taken a taxi at a cost of $600 per person to the Haskell Library in Stanstead, Que., which sits on the international border, then “walked under a gate” separating Canada from the United States, according to an affidavit sworn by the arresting U.S. Border Patrol agent.

The woman with the child told agents she was supposed to pay $3,000 to the driver of the Toyota, Juan Mejia-Flores, to be driven from Derby Line, Vermont, to Laredo, Texas.

Two months earlier, Mejia-Flores had been arrested in Franklin, Vermont, after picking up two Mexican men who had crossed the Canada-U.S. border and, he told border agents, were coming to work for him at a business in Florida.

Another case that occurred in Franklin, Vermont, last August resulted in charges against two Mexican citizens — cousins who initially claimed they had come to the state on a fishing trip, but later pleaded guilty to transporting illegal aliens.

The true nature of the plot was uncovered when border agents discovered text-message exchanges with individuals using Mexican and Canadian telephone numbers. The messages showed a co-ordinated scheme to guide and transport two Guatemalan men from Canada to the U.S.

The Guatemalans told border agents they had met only the previous day in a taxi on the way to the border, a short time before making the illegal crossing.

Agents also discovered text message exchanges between one of the men arrested for transporting the Guatemalan men and someone identified as “Alejandro Canada,” who used an Alberta telephone number.

In the messages, they discuss “the movement of people from Montreal, and payments to be made or received in amounts of approximately $1,500,” according to an affidavit sworn by the arresting border agent.

“There are several photos of money transfer receipts of similar amounts between various people and countries,” the document stated.

Chief Patrol Agent Robert Garcia of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol in Swanton Sector, which covers parts of the states of New York, Vermont and New Hampshire, recently told the local ABC News affiliate in Vermont there are indications that organized criminal gangs are responsible for the rise in activity.

“A lot of times it is in fact a smuggling case or migrants that are looking to be smuggled,” Garcia said.

Security camera footage showing Rajinder Pal Singh (right), an American who pleaded guilty to running a sophisticated operation to transport people illegally across the Canada-U.S. border, purchasing Uber gift cards at a California pharmacy. Investigators found he used unsuspecting Uber drivers to transport people from the American side of the border to safe houses for a steep fee.

Last month, Rajinder Pal Singh, a U.S. citizen, pleaded guilty to smuggling and money-laundering charges in an elaborate scheme to shuttle migrants from India to British Columbia, across the border into Washington State then to destinations throughout the United States.

Singh directed illegal aliens from Canada into the U.S. using a real-time tracking application, then arranged for individuals to be picked up by unsuspecting Uber drivers and taken to safe houses. He admitted to arranging some 600 trips using 17 different Uber accounts between mid-2018 and his arrest in May 2022, according to his Feb. 15 plea agreement.

In wiretap recordings from January 2022, Singh was heard talking about the need for someone in Canada to house and transport his clients in Canada.

“After that, the entire f–ing game is in our hands,” he said, according to the criminal complaint. “It’s totally safe.”

In other conversations that followed a U.S. Border Patrol arrest in Washington State, Singh spoke about the need to shift Canadian operations to Winnipeg, about using a driver in Toronto, and about the need to increase his smuggling fee to $11,500.

“I’ll give you a separate account number, so deposit the money in that account,” Singh said in one of the recorded telephone conversations. “I have to give this money to (deleted). He is in Canada.”

Republican lawmakers in the United States have seized on the increase in people entering the country through Canada, and recently announced the creation of the Northern Border Security Caucus, an initiative to raise awareness about human trafficking and drug trafficking.

Members of the group said in a news release that the increasing number of people crossing into the U.S. from Canada is an attempt to get around a beefed-up southern border that has served as an established route for migrants from central and south American countries seeking to reach the United States.

“The first thing bad guys do is go where the good guys aren’t,” Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Montana Republican and caucus co-chair, said in a Feb. 28 news release. “Right now, all our good guys are dealing with Biden’s crisis on the southwest border, leaving the north unprotected and vulnerable to criminals, cartels and terrorists.”

None of the criminal complaints that Star viewed suggested the people crossing illegally from Canada into the U.S. were linked to terrorism or cartels — nor were any specific organized crime groups mentioned by name.

In one case from last July, Marco Salvedra-Espinoza, a Mexican citizen, was arrested for transporting two Mexican men after crossing the border in Vermont.

Border Patrol agents found evidence the two men paid $2,000 each to be smuggled and anticipated paying more upon their arrival in New York, their intended destination.

They were directed using GPS co-ordinates sent to them from what border agents described as “a smuggling contact” with a Montreal telephone number. And a search of Salvedra-Espinoza’s rented SUV turned up a driver’s license belonging to a man who had been arrested a week earlier on suspicion of acting as a foot guide for people crossing the border.

Contacted Tuesday by telephone, Salvedra-Espinoza’s lawyer, Kevin Henry, denied his client, who will be sentenced March 17, had any links to organized crime groups.

“I don’t have any reason to believe that that’s involved in this case,” Henry said. “Certainly not that I’m aware of.”

The Star requested an interview with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials in Swanton Sector, but was unable to speak to anyone.

The Star also asked the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Vermont for any cases that pointed to the involvement of specific organized crime groups. A spokesperson declined to comment.

From the Canadian perspective, at least, “it’s not so organized,” said RCMP Sgt. Poirier.

Most often, he said, the plots to cross the Canada-U.S. border illegally involve taxi drivers, Uber drivers, family members and community members who are asked to transport individuals to specific locations.

For drivers accepting cash, Poirier said, “it’s a commercial transaction like any other.”

“It becomes very difficult in terms of application of the law in those cases to determine if the driver is committing a crime,” he said.

The risk of injury and even death is heightened when people cross through snow-covered woods and become lost.

And the very nature of the activity makes it extremely difficult for Canadian police to prevent people from crossing.

“There’s nothing illegal about going for a walk at 3 a.m. along the border, so long as they don’t cross it,” Poirier said, adding that there are remote cameras and other detection methods across both sides of the Canada-U.S. border.

“In the past, we’ve intercepted people and sometimes it results in them changing their minds and not crossing. Other times, they come back the next night to try again.”

Allan Woods is a Montreal-based staff reporter for the Star. He covers global and national affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @WoodsAllan

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