(Bethany Blankley, The Center Square) Border Patrol agents in Minnesota and North Dakota continue to apprehend foreign nationals brought in by human smugglers in the dead of winter and illegally crossing the northern border from Canada.
Instead of flying from Mexico and other countries to Canada to enter legally through ports of entry, border agents say foreign nationals are flying to Canada to enter the U.S. illegally between ports of entry while intentionally seeking to evade capture by law enforcement. But they do so at their own peril as temperatures reach double digits below zero and heavy snow is prohibitive for travel on foot and by car.
Minnesota and North Dakota are located in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Grand Forks Sector, which has seven Border Patrol stations responsible for covering eight midwestern states and 861 miles of shared international border with Canada. The shared border includes 403 land miles and 458 miles of water boundary.
In 2022, Border Patrol agents in the Grand Forks Sector apprehended 171 illegal foreign nationals and reported 10 who turned back to Canada, according to Border Patrol data obtained by The Center Square. A Border Patrol agent provided the information on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Grand Forks Sector agents also reported 293 gotaways – those who evaded capture and made it into the U.S. illegally, according to the data, which excludes Office of Field Operations data. CBP doesn’t publish gotaway data, and law enforcement officials have told The Center Square it’s the gotaways who are of most concern because no one knows who or where they are.
While agents apprehended five illegal foreign nationals and reported 25 gotaways in January, they most recently intercepted a human smuggling attempt in Bottineau, North Dakota, involving a driver and six foreign nationals who entered the U.S. illegally.
Grand Forks Sector Chief Border Patrol Agent Anthony S. Good announced Monday, “Outstanding work and collaboration by our agents and local deputies in Bottineau, (North Dakota.) They intercepted a human smuggling attempt involving 6 noncitizens entering the U.S. illegally. The driver is being prosecuted.”
This is after agents say they foiled two separate human smuggling events in one week near the North Dakota/Minnesota border with Canada last November.
In one case, two Georgia residents, Ernesto Falcon Jr. and Rodolfo Arzola-Carrillo, were caught smuggling a group of Mexican nationals after they admitted to having previously successfully brought four groups through without detection.
According to a Border Patrol affidavit, Falcon’s van was stuck in the snow west of Neche, North Dakota, in a remote intersection in Pembina County on Nov. 17. He and Arzola-Carrillo had walked for nearly 40 minutes to meet the group they’d arranged to smuggle into the U.S. Due to dangerous winter weather conditions, they couldn’t drive the group and were stranded. Rather than freeze, they called the sheriff’s office instead.
A Pembina County deputy responded to the call and picked up Falcon and Arzola-Carrillo, and seven Mexican nationals. According to the affidavit, the Mexicans said they were a family from Michoacan, Mexico, including five adults and two children, 9- and 4 years old. Border Patrol processed them for removal and the two Georgia men were charged with conspiracy to commit smuggling across the U.S.-Canada border, Valley News Live first reported.
The Georgia men told law enforcement officers they were being paid between $500 to $1,000 a person to smuggle people into the U.S. from Canada. They’d already successfully smuggled four different groups through this same remote area last fall until they were caught because of inclement weather, the document said.
Just a few miles east, and five days earlier, on Nov. 12, Border Patrol agents said they thwarted a different human smuggling event. They apprehended eight people in St. Vincent, Minnesota, including a driver whom they charged with human smuggling and processed for removal seven foreign nationals who’d illegally entered the U.S.
This is after a Florida man was charged with human smuggling last year after Border Patrol agents announced they’d apprehended a group of Indian nationals near the U.S.-Canadian border in northwest Minnesota. The group had gotten separated in a blizzard. Four froze to death near Emerson, Manitoba, Canada; another five were apprehended in Minnesota.
Over a year later, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is still asking the public to provide information about the family that froze to death in Manitoba.
“We patrol to the best of our abilities with the manpower that we have. The best we can do is try to identify [smuggling] when it happens,” Grand Forks Border Patrol agent David Marcus told the Grand Forks Herald. “It seems like we do catch more people in the winter because of the weather. They get stranded and they end up reaching out for assistance by calling 911.”
This sector, like the busiest northern sector in Vermont, relies on residents to notify them about border crossers. Residents who suspect suspicious activity are encouraged to call their local Border Patrol sector station.
Grand Forks Sector agents work with Canadian law enforcement counterparts through the Integrated Border Enforcement Teams and with multiple law enforcement partnerships receiving federal Operation Stonegarden funding “to directly support border security missions.” Targeted air patrols are also operated through the Office of Air and Marine – North Dakota Air Branch.