The question is complex.
As temperatures hovered around -35 with the wind chill, why did four people – two adults, a teenager and a baby believed to be members of the same family from India – end up in the Manitoba field near the border between Canada and the United States, where they froze to death in this week?
For Minnesota immigration attorney Ayodele Ojo, what he has seen in his work makes one thing clear.
“People do crazy things for hope. What drives them is hope,” he said. “Because they think they will make it. They have been told it is possible.”
In this case, the people found dead may have been victims of a wider human trafficking, US Department of Homeland Security special agent John Stanley said in a statement.
Before the four bodies were found near the town of Emerson, U.S. border patrol officers had stopped a van with 15 passengers just south of the international border.
Inside were two undocumented Indian nationals who were detained. Five others were also arrested nearby around the same time. It is believed that the seven and the four who died in Manitoba were all part of the same group but had been separated.
The driver of the van, 47-year-old Steve Shand from Florida, was charged with human trafficking. Shand is also suspected of being part of three other recent smuggling incidents at the same place where he was arrested, the statement said.
A few years ago, irregular border crossings were common in Manitoba when asylum seekers fled the United States to Canada for fear of extensive deportations shortly after Donald Trump became president.
These incidents appear to have dropped in recent years, Manitoba RCMP Assistant Commissioner Jane MacLatchy said this week.
The United States is seen as desirable
But Homeland Security’s special agent Tonya Price said it’s still too early to say whether this recent series of smuggling incidents is part of a growing trend in the opposite direction.
“It’s not nearly as widespread as it is on the southern border, but we’re certainly seeing it here on the northern border, and this is an example and certainly an unfortunate one,” Price said.
She said law enforcement recognizes the problem and is trying to eradicate it by preventing known smuggling routes from being used. But she could not reveal any updates on their investigation, including the status of the seven alleged border crossings detained on Wednesday.
In general, she said, the people who risk a dangerous journey for a better life are desperate.
“The reality is that people from other countries want to live the American dream and they want to come here because they know there are more opportunities here, there are more vacancies, their families are here often,” she said.
Few details have been released about the Indian nationals who have been remanded in custody in the United States, but Stanley’s statement said they speak little or no English and speak fluently in Gujarati.
According to the 2016 census – the latest available data – 63,555 people in Canada and 2,200 in Manitoba said the West Indies language was the most commonly used language at home.
Akhil Shah, president of the Friends of Gujarat non-profit organization based in Brampton, Ont., Said that while both Canada and the United States are seen as countries for immigrants, many Gujarati are more keen to move to the states – especially when they see their friends and neighbors from home do it.
“They think it’s the only country that has many options,” Shah said.
“And there is [an] envy factor it [makes them think], ‘The person can go to… the country in question. Why not me? ‘ So they would land here and then they try to, you know, go back to or travel to [the] USA and migrate there, right? That is their motivation.
“But they are not aware that Canada has equal opportunities, right? And they can also manage their lives here.”
Do not pay attention to risks
Shah said he wondered if the group of people who allegedly crossed the border from Manitoba into the United States on foot – or the four who died – had been fully aware of the risks of making that kind of journey in such cold weather .
“They may not have realized the fact that it is not practically possible to go that far,” he said.
Nalini Reddy said that was perhaps what bothered her most in the case.
The Winnipeg immigration and refugee lawyer said the incident appears to be an example of a phenomenon where people are seeking help from “representatives who are not up and down” who are making fraudulent applications to help them get to Canada with the goal of getting into the United States illegally and disappearing into the underground economy.
“Unfortunately, there is a sector that is interested in making money on the backs of people who are desperate to get here in one way or another, and sometimes it includes fraudulent means,” Reddy said.
But the people who buy these orchestrated entrances to a country may not understand many of the details involved in it, she said, including what it means to cross a border on foot in extreme winter temperatures.
“This fact alone is so incredibly dangerous and unknown to people,” Reddy said.
“It really worries me that there are people who profit from schemes like this.”