Listen: 20170222_Crossing North (Gunderson)

MPR’s Dan Gunderson and Laura Yuen report on refugees who are attempting to cross Minnesota border into Canada over fears of deportation. Segment includes interviews with refugees, attorneys, and a U.S. border official.

Making the trip is both dangerous and illegal, but the numbers are growing due mainly to the political climate in the U.S.


2017 MBJA Eric Sevareid Award, first place in General Reporting - Large Market Radio category


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SPEAKER: Minneapolis has become a main way station on the global path some refugees take to cross the border into Canada from the US. Now each week, as many as two dozen African refugees trudge through the snow-covered farm fields that straddle either side of Interstate 29 in North Dakota and Minnesota. Making the trip is both dangerous and illegal, but the numbers are growing mainly due to the political climate in the US. Dan Gunderson and Laura Yuen teamed up for our story.

DAN GUNDERSON: One of the points where people might try to sneak across into Canada is an abandoned border crossing. There is a gate across the border, and the road is blocked with snowdrifts. But I'm just a few feet away from the Canadian border here.

Just across the border, there's still a sign rather faded, but it says, "Welcome to Canada." This is where 28-year-old Bashir Yusuf crossed the border in the middle of the night earlier this month. He and two other young men tried to walk in the cover of trees and brush along the winding Red River that marks the Minnesota North Dakota border.

BASHIR YUSUF: You crawl. You crawl.

DAN GUNDERSON: So the snow was so deep you had to crawl?

BASHIR YUSUF: Deep, Yeah. Deep. Sometimes you crawl because you cannot move because every step you take, you go deep.

DAN GUNDERSON: Yusuf says he paid a man $600 to drive him from Minneapolis to the Canadian border. The man told him he would be dropped near the border.

BASHIR YUSUF: He said, you just walk like five minutes, but he was lying. Actually, I will say, the walking will have been like 30 minutes or something. But because of the snow, it took like three hours or more.

DAN GUNDERSON: Yusuf says when he finally made it to the Canadian border station, he was so exhausted the border agents had to remove his boots.

BASHIR YUSUF: I will never forget this. I was like, I was, damn, like, this is your final night.

DAN GUNDERSON: This midnight trek through waist deep snow is only the latest leg of a 3 and 1/2 year journey, Yusuf says, he undertook to escape death threats in Somalia. He says he was badly beaten in a tribal conflict in Somalia. There's no way to verify his story, but he says the incident left him hospitalized and convinced him to flee the country.

He took a route familiar to many refugees seeking asylum. He flew to South America in 2013 and made his way to the Southern US border. Yusuf says he left Somalia in June and arrived in the US near the end of October. He paid a man in Colombia to guide him across the border into Panama.

BASHIR YUSUF: The big journey I took from Colombia to Panama, this one was two days and nights in the Caribbean jungle. That was too long and scary also. But the one in Canada was like 2 miles, but it was the most scariest one. It was cold as hell. You were lucky to stay alive, you know?

DAN GUNDERSON: Yusuf had been living in San Diego working odd jobs while he waited for his refugee claim to be processed. His claim was denied, and he was ordered deported late in 2015 during the Obama administration. For about two months before he went to Canada, Yusuf lived with family in Minneapolis. And it was through a friend there that he found the man who would drive him to the border.

BASHIR YUSUF: Why I take this risk is because there was no humanity in the United States any longer because of the new administration.

DAN GUNDERSON: To be clear, this route into Manitoba by asylum seekers in the US was well traveled before Donald Trump became president. There's a big backlog of cases in the US, and rather than wait for years in limbo, many people chose to try their luck in Canada. But Twin Cities attorneys say Trump's advance to the Oval Office triggered panic among many migrants in search of refuge. Leading up to the election, Trump promised to immediately deport millions of unauthorized immigrants with criminal records.

DONALD TRUMP: We will begin moving them out day one as soon as I take office, day one.

DAN GUNDERSON: Now compare that to the gentler overtures from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, like here when Trudeau teared up while talking to a Syrian refugee he helped bring to Canada.

JUSTIN TRUDEAU: I told myself I wouldn't get emotional about this, but of course, it's just it's a wonderful moment for me. But it's also a reflection of what is best about Canada.

DAN GUNDERSON: Minneapolis immigration attorney Abdinasir Abdulahi says the juxtaposition of those two messages was impossible for asylum seekers in the US to ignore.

ABDINASIR ABDULAHI: Huge difference. You have Trump saying they want all the power to you, but at the same time you have Canada that is giving all the signals that we're welcoming and you would find at least hope here.

DAN GUNDERSON: Abdulahi says over the past year, he had a client disappear to Canada even though he had a strong chance of winning legal status in the US. He says, according to the client's family, the man was certain he would be deported after Trump was sworn into office. But the fact that asylum seekers are risking their lives to make the slog to Canada troubles many community leaders.

KWAO AMEGASHIE: I thought it was weird. Why Minnesota? Why this time of the year?

DAN GUNDERSON: Kwao Amegashie, an immigration attorney and past president of the Ghanaian Association of Minnesota said he was astonished when he heard Ghanaians were among those passing through Minneapolis and risking everything to make the journey to Winnipeg. Amegashie says, most likely these newcomers had no idea just how unforgiving. The northern plains could be at the coldest time of the year.

KWAO AMEGASHIE: I started thinking probably this person didn't talk to anybody, any person in the Ghanaian community here who probably would have told that person that, no, it's going to be hazardous. We as a community can start educating people that, hey, if you're doing this, you may not survive the next time.

DAN GUNDERSON: Ghanaian community members in Manitoba share that worry, but fear is driving people to take desperate actions as Maggie Yaboah. She's president of the 1,200 member Ghanaian union of Manitoba. Yaboah immigrated to Canada more than 30 years ago.

She says, the Ghanaian union often provides informal assistance to new arrivals. In the past, one or two refugees a year arrived from Ghana,. But more than two dozen Ghanaian men have walked across the border into Manitoba since last fall.

MAGGIE YABOAH: According to them, their aim is to get to America, the states where they know they will be received very well and they will be welcomed. But when they got there, things were not as they had thought.

DAN GUNDERSON: The men had their refugee claims denied in the US. So they fled to Canada to avoid deportation. Yaboah has helped the men find furniture for apartments, brought them food, and even had one of the new arrivals live with her for several months until he found housing. She spends a lot of time with two men who have become the faces of refugee desperation in recent weeks.

Razak Iyal and Seidu Mohammed walked across the border in late December on a bitterly cold night. They suffered severe frostbite while exposed to the elements for as long as 10 hours.

SEIDU MOHAMMED: My eyes was frozen. I can't see anything. And we are walking on the highway. I was very terrified. I was about to give up.

DAN GUNDERSON: Mohammad lost all of his fingers and parts of his ears. Iyal sits on the edge of a bed in a tiny room at a rehab facility in Winnipeg and flexes his single remaining digit, his right thumb.

RAZAK IYAL: You can't put on your shoe by yourself. It's terrible.

DAN GUNDERSON: They will have to relearn the basics of life. But Iyal says they do not regret the dangerous choice they made.

RAZAK IYAL: We lost our fingers, but we're still alive. I know with the help of people of Canada, we can do something with our life.

DAN GUNDERSON: Mohammad and Iyal arrived separately in the States from Ghana seeking asylum traveling the common route through South America. They thought getting to the US would be the most difficult part of their journey, but both said they were detained after arriving. Iyal says he was put in handcuffs and chains and taken to a detention center in Arizona where he spent two years. He claims he was asked to provide proof his life was in danger in Ghana, but he was not allowed internet access or a phone. So he was unable to get the needed information.

RAZAK IYAL: If somebody told me that United States would do such a thing, I will not believe that until I got there and I saw it with my own eyes.

DAN GUNDERSON: The two men say they first met at a bus station in Minneapolis. Both had fled their homes in a panic after being contacted by immigration officials. Mohammed remembers opening a letter that ordered him deported.

SEIDU MOHAMMED: When I saw the letter, my body was shaking. I couldn't even sleep that day.

DAN GUNDERSON: He packed a bag and ran the next day telling no one where he was going. Despite losing all of his fingers, Mohammed who says he earned a living playing soccer in Ghana, has a plan for the future.

SEIDU MOHAMMED: I want to go to a coaching course to get a license and start coaching kids. That's my dream right now.

DAN GUNDERSON: But he will likely wait weeks to know if Canada will grant him asylum. The place where all of these men crossed the border is attracting refugees from across the country. Officials say this route is known about even in Somalia.

ERIC KUHN: For us, it's the predominant border activity that we see up here.

DAN GUNDERSON: Eric Kuhn is patrol agent in charge of the Pembina Border Patrol Office. He oversees about 100 miles of border in Minnesota and North Dakota. Kuhn shows me several of the commonly-used border crossing points, most within a 60 mile border segment easily accessible from I-29.

ERIC KUHN: Whether it's loose or highly organized, it is a very well-known route. Again, we'll talk predominantly Somali nationals or East Africans can find out to come to Minneapolis and in short order can get up here to cross the border.

DAN GUNDERSON: Kuhn says it's not against the law to sneak out of the country. The Canadian Border Services Agency says four years ago along this section of the border, 68 people crossed illegally in 12 months. In just nine months last year, there were 430 illegal crossings.

Sometimes the US Border Patrol sees a shadowy figure on a surveillance camera heading North and simply passes that information to Canadian law enforcement. They will stop people if they can, question them, and try to dissuade them from crossing the border. But unless a background check turns up something, they are released. So, why bother chasing people who are leaving the country?

Kuhn says they don't want anyone to die on a frozen farm field. They also need to assist Canadian law enforcement. And they need to be alert for a possible reverse in the traffic flow, what he calls bad guys using the same area to enter the US. Kuhn says he wants to keep the flow of refugees contained to this corridor along Interstate 29. He worries what will happen if they try to cross the border in even more remote areas further East in Minnesota.

ERIC KUHN: If somebody crosses the border without a cell phone or an area with no cell phone coverage and gets themselves into trouble and nobody calls looking for them, you may not know until a farmer finds him in the field in the spring.

DAN GUNDERSON: Many of the refugees who cross into Canada illegally end up at the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council. It's the only program in the province that provides legal assistance for refugees seeking asylum. They also help them find housing, and they get refugees signed up for government financial assistance programs.

Rita Chahal is executive director. Up until this winter, she had funding for one staff person who handled about 50 or 60 refugee cases a year. Now they might get 20 cases on a single weekend. Joel has borrowed staff from other programs to help, but she's not sure the current pace is sustainable. And Chahal sees no sign the influx of refugees will slow.

RITA CHAHAL: Given the general trends, we think that this will continue. We think as the weather gets warmer, we may see more people coming through the Emerson border.

DAN GUNDERSON: Some Canadian politicians think the flow of refugees needs to be better controlled. Chahal says her non-profit organization stays out of politics and keeps its focus on helping people.

RITA CHAHAL: I think we have to always remember that there's a human behind each number and each file.

DAN GUNDERSON: With reporting from Laura Yuen, Dan Gundersen, Minnesota Public Radio News, Emerson, Manitoba.


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