The frigid terrain of northwestern Minnesota can be unforgiving to even the most well-prepared residents. It proved deadly for a family of four Indian nationals, including a baby, who froze to death last week while trying to enter the United States.
It might seem a strange location for an unguided hike of miles in the wintry darkness. But wintertime is prime time on the northern border, when frozen rivers and lakes become highways that offer multiple routes into the country.
"As soon as winter hits here, you've got vehicles that can drive across the rivers that are now roads into the United States," said Anthony Good, chief patrol agent of the Grand Forks Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol.
"Snowmobiling, ice fishing — it creates avenues for people to try to mix in with others" and slip across the border, said Good, who oversees about 175 agents who patrol 861 miles of the U.S.-Canada border from the Montana-North Dakota line, across Minnesota and into Wisconsin. In total, the Border Patrol has about 2,000 agents stationed along the entire U.S.-Canada line.
The activity pales compared with the nation's southwest border, where nearly 17,000 agents are on patrol. But the recent deaths highlight the dangers faced by those who put their lives in the hands of smugglers.
"They're not looking out for you," Good said. "All they care about is the money. The smugglers are callous. They have no regard for human life."
Steve Shand, a 47-year-old Florida man, faces a federal charge of human smuggling. He's in custody awaiting a court hearing Monday.
According to the criminal complaint, Shand rented a van at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport last week and made his way to northwest Minnesota. There, on Wednesday, he picked up two unauthorized immigrants.
A Border Patrol agent spotted Shand and his human cargo and detained him. Agents then rounded up five more Indians who were making their way on foot to the meeting spot.
One man carried a backpack with baby gear: clothing, toys, diapers and medicine. But there was no baby in the group, prompting a search for the missing child. Later that day, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found the four bodies just over the Canadian side of the border about 6 miles east of Noyes, Minn.
The loss of life illustrates just how far people will go in search of the American Dream, said Tonya Price, a special agent with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations in the Twin Cities who investigates human trafficking cases.
"We have vulnerable individuals from foreign countries who are taking drastic steps to enter the United States," Price said. "They're making a desperate decision to leave their home country. And the reality is that they're incredibly vulnerable in doing that."
People seeking to come here illegally may obtain fraudulent visas from Canada or Mexico, Price said. In many foreign countries, smugglers are found through family members or word of mouth.
"If you're in a desperate enough situation and you ask enough people, chances are you will be connected with bad people who are interested in taking your money," she said.
People may pay $10,000 or more to be smuggled into the United States, said Andy Althoff, who retired from the Border Patrol two years ago as deputy chief of the Grand Forks Sector. The smugglers, he said, are well-organized and the business can be lucrative.
In the year ended Sept. 30, 2020, the latest statistics available, the Grand Forks Sector reported 227 "encounters" with illegal entrants; the entire northern border reported about 2,100 encounters. By contrast, there were about 400,000 encounters on the southwest border.
There are reasons some people choose to run the risks of the northern crossing, Althoff said. In addition to its larger enforcement units, the southwest border has much more technology deployed to catch illegal entrants. While the northern border uses sensors and game cameras, it mostly relies on the diligence of agents on patrol. Also, the southwest border is controlled by criminal cartels who rule their areas on the Mexican side, he added.
"The northern border is more benign," Althoff said. "There's not much criminal threat up there."
Residents along the border said they haven't seen much, if any, activity by people trying to cross illegally.
"It's something that will come up," said Darrel Johnson, a Kittson County commissioner who represents the area where the alleged smuggler was arrested. "It's not top of mind in general."
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has designated January as Human Trafficking Prevention Month and encourages citizens to educate themselves on the dangers of trafficking and smuggling. The agency's Blue Campaign offers awareness training and hotlines to report suspected activity.
In this part of the nation, the effort will be led by the officers who patrol the lonely roads Up North.
"I'm very proud of my agents here," Good said. "They work very hard every day. Vigilance is one of our core values." The agent who arrested Shand, Good said, "just went out to do his due diligence, and it paid off."
Although the four deaths were tragic, the officer may well have saved the lives of the others, he added.
"It's more than just an apprehension," Good said. "This is a significant rescue."