The men pay hundreds of dollars for middle-of-the-night cab rides north to the Canadian border. They wade into the Red River to dodge border agents in summer and trudge through waist-deep snow in winter. On Christmas Eve, two wandered in the wind-swept flatness and lost their fingers to frostbite.
Minnesota has become a key stop for a soaring number of migrants from Somalia and other African countries who sneak into Canada to seek asylum. More than 430 arrived in Winnipeg since April, up from 70 three years ago. Most come by way of Minneapolis, sometimes after grueling treks across Latin America and stints in U.S. immigration detention.
The exodus is now coinciding with new steps by the Trump White House to restrict immigrant and refugee entry — policies expected to spur even more crossings.
“I was used to people coming north into the U.S.,” said Scott Webster, deputy agent in charge at the U.S. Border Patrol’s Pembina, N.D., station and a veteran of the border with Mexico. “Now, they are still going north, but heading out of the U.S.”
A tangle of factors is fueling the surge: brisker traffic along an immigrant smuggling route out of East Africa, stepped-up deportations under the Obama administration and the lure of Canada’s gentler welcome. Advocates expect the Trump administration’s harder line on immigration will spur even more illegal crossings into Canada, where some nonprofits serving asylum seekers are already overwhelmed. Now Canadians worry smugglers are making fresh profits from asylum seekers and migrants take more risks to make the crossing.
In the August predawn, Yahya Samatar, a Somali father of four, stood at the bank of the Red River, which flows between Minnesota and North Dakota and into Canada. He had gotten lost walking across fields near the checkpoint at Emerson, Manitoba, near Pembina, and he now believed the only way into Canada was across the murky water.
He hesitated. Behind him was the specter of his seven months in immigration detention and a return flight to Somalia. There, he says, his work as an activist put him in the cross hairs of both Al-Shabab and local government officials. He left his clothes, shoes and backpack on the bank and waded in. On the other side, he walked on, muddy and shivering in his underwear, until he came across a postal truck driver.
“Am I in Canada?” he asked.
The number of migrants crossing near Emerson has swelled steadily since the early 2010s, based on data from Canadian border authorities. Provinces from Quebec to British Columbia have seen major increases as well. Almost 60 percent of the Manitoba arrivals since the start of the Canadian fiscal year in April were Somali, with growing contingents from Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Ghana.
When U.S. Border Patrol agents spot the migrants heading north, they alert Canadian counterparts: Technically, it is only once they cross the border that authorities have cause to intervene.In previous years, illegal crossings dropped off during the winter months; the unabated traffic this winter through a sparsely populated area with sprawling horizons is of “immense” concern, Webster said. Two men from Ghana walked through deep snow to cross the border as the temperature dipped below 0 on Christmas Eve. They got lost and suffered severe frostbite that claimed their fingers.
Refugee advocates such as the Canadian Council for Refugees blame the injuries on a 2004 agreement with the United States to discourage “asylum shopping”: Most people who present themselves at an official point of entry between the two countries to seek asylum will be turned back. But if immigrants cross into Canada somewhere else, they are able to stay and lodge an asylum application.
“People must be really desperate if they are coming in the dead of winter,” said Bashir Khan, a Winnipeg lawyer who has represented about 120 asylum seekers in the past four years.
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Samatar says he fled southern Somalia in a hurry. In neighboring Ethiopia began a grueling, monthslong journey: a flight to Brazil and a trek north through nine countries. What the smugglers did not tell him and other migrants: When they presented themselves to U.S. immigration authorities to seek asylum, they would be detained.
“I was totally not expecting I would be in jail,” Samatar said. “I was shocked.”
After his asylum application was rejected, he was released to await deportation. Within weeks, he was bound for Canada by way of Minneapolis.
A dozen recent border crossers interviewed in Winnipeg echoed Samatar’s story. Many paid $10,000 or more to smugglers who flew them to South America and ferried them north by bus, car, raft and on foot — a smuggling route first forged to shuttle Somalis stuck in long refugee resettlement waits or with no access to that program. They report fleeing mandatory yearslong military service in Eritrea, discrimination against gays in Ghana and general poverty and unrest in the region.
Then came time in U.S. immigration detention and the denial of their asylum claims. According to data from Syracuse University, asylum applications from East Africans saw some of the largest increases in recent years — and among the highest rejection rates. Of almost 2,000 claims Somalis filed between 2010 and 2015, 55 percent failed.
Asylum applicants from East Africa don’t make a strong enough case if they cite the general threat posed by groups such as Al-Shabab and instability back home, explains Michele McKenzie with Minneapolis-based nonprofit Advocates for Human Rights. They might not have documents proving their identities or evidence fleshing out their cases.
Meanwhile, the pace of deportations to Somalia has picked up. In previous years, the United States mostly sent back people who came legally as refugees but committed crimes before becoming citizens, says Minneapolis attorney Marc Prokosch. Those with rejected asylum applications and no criminal records were “left alone.” But last year, more of them started hearing from immigration authorities they would be sent back soon.
The November election of Donald Trump, who singled out Somali refugees on the campaign trail, signaled it would not get any easier to stay in the United States.
“With the political climate here, many people are willing to take their options up north,” said Mohamud Noor of the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Confederation of Somali Community. He said the departures include people who had settled in Minnesota while pursuing asylum and a small number of refugees who had run-ins with the law.
Most asylum seekers interviewed in Winnipeg said they made at least a short stopover in Minneapolis. Many then took a bus to Grand Forks, where they met up with others looking to make the crossing and took cabs to the border in the middle of the night.
Two men from Djibouti said they and a pair of fellow travelers paid a Somali driver $800 each for the roughly 75-mile ride north in December. Wary of a run-in with authorities, the driver dropped them miles from the border. They walked for hours, using the GPS on a cellphone to get back on track when they got lost. When someone got extremely cold, the others took turns sharing their coats.
“If you are scared about your destiny,” one Somali asylum seeker in Winnipeg said, “you don’t care about the cold.”
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Friends helped Ismail Falir cross into Canada in 2015. But, he says, many more recent arrivals are paying for guidance, rides to the border and promises of assistance in Winnipeg — new services that he believes partly explain the brisker cross-border traffic. Falir, a Winnipeg construction worker who has since won asylum, says he and others in the local Somali community want to expose the smugglers, including people in Winnipeg and Minneapolis.
“You are making money off of people who are running to save their lives,” he said. “It’s not right.”
The Border Patrol’s Webster says agents are keeping an eye out for drivers, but, he said: “It’s not until you pull off into a farm field and four or five people jump out that I have reason to talk to you. To be there at that exact moment is difficult.”
Canadian border authorities say they are taking smuggling allegations seriously, but they cannot confirm if an investigation is underway. Humanitarian concerns have dominated debate over the crossings in Canada, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Winnipeg recently that security is also a focus as his country seeks an “open yet rigorous” approach.
More migrants are also paying smugglers in East Africa for direct service to Canada, with the United States as a transit point. Two young women who arrived in Winnipeg last year said smugglers flew them to Mexico, took them across the border, whisked them to Minneapolis and then on to the border days later.
“They’ll bring you to a safe place, but they will take all your money,” said one.
Meanwhile, the word is out in U.S. immigrant communities that asylum seekers can get help in Canada. At the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, staffers assist people with filing applications, finding a lawyer, signing up for public benefits and more. Since last spring, the agency has put up arrivals from the United States in three apartments near downtown Winnipeg — and they have been full all along.
The council says its staff is struggling to keep up. At Winnipeg’s Rainbow Resource Centre, which serves gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender residents, counselors are also overwhelmed, said Executive Director Mike Tutthill. Asylum seekers come for counseling and for letters vouching for their sexual orientation to aid in asylum applications.
Getting asylum in Canada is by no means a slam-dunk, but odds are somewhat better. Data from the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada shows that in 2015 and through September of 2016, about 60 percent of 28,524 applications nationally were approved.
Nonprofits expect the number of asylum seekers crossing the border will continue to rise. This past weekend, on the heels of Trump’s executive order on immigration, 10 East African asylum seekers arrived in Winnipeg.
Samatar, the Somali man who swam the Red River, now works for a fundraising consulting firm in Winnipeg and hopes to have his wife and children join him. His asylum bid was approved last fall.
“That was the moment my life began again,” he said.