Editor’s note: This is the first in a series about people illegally crossing the Canadian border into Kittson County and how law enforcement handles the ongoing situation.
By Anna Jauhola
Over the last several months, local, state and federal law enforcement have encountered an increasing number of illegal border crossings in Kittson County. Within the past month and a half, there has been a swing from foot traffic to vehicle traffic crossing in remote areas, which prompted action by the Kittson County Sheriff’s Office, in coordination with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
On Tuesday, Aug. 15, the Kittson County Board of Commissioners approved the sheriff’s office to spend up to $6,000 to purchase concrete barriers. Each barrier plus delivery costs $100 from Davidson Construction, and manpower to place them will be approximately $2,000. Measuring 6 feet long by 2 feet high by 2 feet wide, Sheriff Matt Vig said the barriers can help stop vehicles coming across at uncontrolled field and road crossings along the U.S.-Canadian border.
“We get people coming through because it’s pretty much wide open,” said Sheriff Matt Vig during a commissioner workshop on Tuesday, Aug. 8. “There are some deep ditches, but there are other spots where people can drive even a two-wheel drive car right through the border.”
Vig said he’d place the majority of barriers in the CP Rail yard at Noyes as this has been a popular spot for people to cruise across. He estimated they would use 30 barriers in that location. They plan to place the rest of the barriers at the gas plant, which sits near the Canadian border, and on private property in between. Vig said he has spoken with Canadian-Pacific Railroad and gas plant officials, as well as landowners, and has already received permission for this project.
In January 2022, a family of four Indian immigrants were found dead just 5 feet from the U.S. border at Kittson County, about 6 miles east of Emerson, Man. This incident brought illegal crossings on the northern border into the national spotlight. In that case, the family was being smuggled into the U.S. and the Kittson County Sheriff’s Office was the first to respond.
In May 2023, Kittson County Sheriff’s Office and CBP found 20 immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala being smuggled into the U.S. near Caribou in the northeast corner of the county.
In both of these cases, immigrants were likely dropped off north of the U.S. border and told to walk across the border in a remote location where a vehicle was supposed to pick them up.
Within the last two months, that traffic has shifted to people from Northern Ireland and Romania driving through the border in remote locations.
The Kittson County Commission discussed the issue with the sheriff’s office, CBP and CP Rail during a Tuesday, Aug. 8 workshop in Hallock.
CBP Patrol Agent in Charge Xavier Ruiz, from the Pembina station, said these groups are being dispersed from Canada, and crossing into the U.S. Both groups are known for their illegal activities such as credit card skimming, identity theft and home burglaries.
“We are unsure of how large this group is, but from the information we have, it seems to be a relatively large group of people,” Ruiz told the commissioners. “So we are expecting this traffic to continue, at least for the short term, and so it’s a concern.”
Commissioner Loren Younggren asked why buying concrete barriers and placing them is the county’s responsibility and not the border patrol’s.
Ruiz said his hands are tied to purchase and place barriers.
“We do patrol that area of the border, but we’re not allocated any money for any infrastructure on the border,” Ruiz said. “This is an issue that has just come up now. For us to request funds, it would take a lengthy period of time for me to procure funds. It has to go through several layers of approval, all the way up to Washington, D.C.”
Even if CBP did get funding, they would still need to coordinate with the Canadian government to place the barriers directly on the physical border.
“We would have to negotiate a long time before anything happened, if anything happened,” Ruiz said. “It probably would never get approval to put anything on the physical border. That’s why it’s really a nonstarter for us.”
He added the federal government doesn’t have an appetite for placing barriers between the U.S. and its friendly neighbor to the north.
Younggren asked in the Aug. 15 regular meeting whether the sheriff’s office could use its Stonegarden Grant funding to purchase the barriers. The federal Stonegarden Grant, administered by FEMA, assists law enforcement in U.S. counties bordering Canada with patrol and enforcement costs. Kittson County has received this grant for many years, but the funding is restricted each year for different purposes. Chief Deputy Dave Thompson said the grant determines whether they can use funding on labor, extra patrol, equipment or other issues. According to the Department of Homeland Security website, Operation Stonegarden Grant funds for 2023 will be used for information and intelligence sharing.
“If we find we can use Stonegarden funds for this, we will,” Vig said.
While the sheriff’s office received the go-ahead to purchase and place concrete barriers, the decision came during a slow period. Vig said at the regular Aug. 15 commission meeting vehicle traffic through unsecured spots had slowed over the last week with only one person crossing.
“It would be nice to have that permission in case things get crazy and I can act on it,” Vig said.
Previously, Vig and the commission discussed using highway department personnel to place the barriers. In the Aug. 15 meeting, Vig said he’s contacted contractor Kyle Twamley, who has a payloader in St. Vincent, and said he can place the barriers.
Commissioner Theresia Gillie asked how they handle watching the border crossing at Noyes, which closed in 2006, and the CP Rail yard, which is where 11 people were caught crossing only a month ago.
“There is not someone there 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When it’s possible, we monitor it physically,” Ruiz said. “And we do have cameras in the area. But understand, we are a station of 37 agents, running a 24-hour a day operation, so staffing fluctuates.”
Younggren asked whether people are illegally crossing in other counties as well. Ruiz said this is an issue across the northern border, especially in the 112 miles the Pembina station covers – from the Hannah, N.D., Port of Entry to the Roseau County border.
Commissioner Leon Olson asked whether Canadian law enforcement had any objections to these barriers. Ruiz said CBP has monthly meetings with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at the Pembina station, and recent conversation has focused on illegal crossings.
“They maybe have a tenth of the manpower that we have on our side of the border,” he said. “So they are not able to assist with any of this traffic hardly at all. Even if they’re able to, it’s minimal at best because there are six or eight of them. And they’re dealing with a very large area, all of Manitoba.”
Although many people feel safe, they should also be wary and cautious. Ruiz emphasized that residents should lock their outbuildings, homes and vehicles.
“I feel obligated to do something,” Vig said. “I’ve talked to people in our county, they’re concerned. And knowing (CBP’s) hands are tied, we should do something.”