PEMBINA, N.D. — For decades, the United States — long a beacon of freedom and prosperity for people around the world — has been fixated on what to do about the persistent flow of illegal migration at its southern border.
But experts say the deaths of four people who perished in the cold trying to cross into the country from Canada may mean the U.S. will soon have to worry about the northern border as well.
Despite well-documented racial and social tensions, persistent political gridlock and a gaping cultural divide threatening to tear the country in two, the lure of the U.S. doesn't seem to be waning for some.
"Literally freezing to death metres from the U.S. border — I mean, it's just so tragic," said Kathryn Byrk Friedman, a border expert and professor of law and planning at the University at Buffalo.
"From the U.S. perspective, to me, it just demonstrates the allure still — maybe the enduring allure — of trying to get to the United States; it's really kind of fascinating ... people still take desperate measures to get here."
Investigators believe the dead, including a baby and a teen, were a family of four from India who had been travelling with a larger group of Indian migrants apprehended on the U.S. side of the border.
Autopsy results have not been released, but the RCMP have said they believe the family froze to death in the bitterly cold, blizzard-like conditions they endured over the course of their odyssey.
U.S. investigators say the deaths are likely linked to a larger human smuggling operation. Florida resident Steve Shand, 47, is scheduled to appear in court Monday to face human smuggling charges.
Department of Homeland Security officials refused Saturday to disclose any additional details about the investigation, including whether any of the victims or the survivors have yet been identified.
"(Homeland Security Investigations) is currently conducting an ongoing investigation," public affairs officer Shawn Neudauer said in a statement.
"Because of this, we won’t be able to offer any further comment about any aspect of this matter."
Consular officials were scheduled to meet Saturday in Canada to assist with the investigation, while members of the India Association of Manitoba were continuing with efforts to track down family members.
Shand was behind the wheel of a large passenger van with two undocumented Indian nationals when he was pulled over Wednesday by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials.
At around the same time, five more migrants were spotted making their way from the border to an unstaffed gas plant in the area that investigators believe was meant as a meeting point. They'd been walking for more than 11 hours, court documents say.
Those documents also allege that one of the people in the group spent a large sum of money to come to Canada on a fraudulent student visa.
The area near the plant, located outside the tiny hamlet of St. Vincent, Minn., is a snowdrifted, deserted tract of open field, dotted with stands of trees extending to the horizon in every direction.
Overnight temperatures Friday night reached -33 C after fierce wind gusts and snow strafed the region, sending cars and trucks spinning into the ditch and reducing visibility to zero.
That's what it was like earlier in the week as well — and Friedman said it's possible the group had hoped to use whiteout conditions as cover in hopes of avoiding detection.
She called the tragedy a "warning shot," since the evidence points to a carefully planned effort — one that likely won't be the last.
"The fact that it's organized — who knows how many other people have made it across through these organized efforts?" she said.
"Smugglers are smart ... and they will always work around laws that are in place to try to make money and get what they want."
The crush of South American migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border has become a defining characteristic of American politics in recent years, most notably during the tenure of former president Donald Trump.
Nor is Canada a stranger to the problem: thousands of northbound asylum seekers had been entering the country each year — more than 20,000 in 2018 alone — before their numbers dropped off precipitously with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
Irregular migration, as well as its causes and potential solutions, will be a central item on the agenda when regional leaders gather this summer in Los Angeles for the Summit of the Americas.
As to whether the latest tragedy is liable to spur either Canada or the U.S. into action, Friedman's not holding her breath.
"This sounds terrible, but I think it's going to take more than four people dying at the border to really galvanize action on the part of Canada and the United States," she said.
"I think it would take a lot more — a tragedy of greater scope."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 22, 2022.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press