Editor’s note: This is part of a series of stories about people illegally crossing the U.S.-Canadian border into Kittson County and how law enforcement handles the ongoing situation.
By Anna Jauhola
In the last week of September, two groups of people illegally crossed the Canadian border into the United States and were caught in Kittson County.
These are not isolated incidents. Groups of people of varying nationalities continue to cross at unmonitored or lightly monitored areas along the border.
Earlier this year, people were crossing in vehicles several times a week, leaving law enforcement scrambling to find a proactive solution. Kittson County Sheriff Matt Vig first got Customs and Border Protection on board to support his request to purchase concrete barriers to place in locations along the border. In August, the Kittson County Commission approved up to $6,000 for the sheriff’s office to purchase barriers.
Now, everything is up in the air.
“They’re coming through in so many different spots,” Vig said in September during a ride-a-long at the border. He noted one location that might be effective to place a barrier. “But then the frustrating thing is too, it’s basically a catch-and-release situation the way it is. So does Kittson County want to spend $6,000 for concrete barricades?”
The sheriff’s office has not purchased or placed any barricades. Essentially, they’re back to square one — monitoring, communicating with locals, encouraging “if you see something, say something.”
On Sept. 26, the U.S. Border Patrol Grand Forks Sector posted this very phrase on Facebook with a picture of a Canadian Pacific train. Someone from the Lake Bronson area reported a group of people walking south along the railroad tracks parallel to Highway 59. Between law enforcement groups, they determined the group had illegally crossed the border.
Just three days before that, Kittson County Sheriff’s Office assisted Pembina and Warroad CBP agents in capturing and arresting a group of 15 people who illegally crossed near Caribou.
The variety of people and ways they’re crossing into the U.S. continues to vary.
Earlier in the year, Mexicans and Guatemalans were caught crossing into Kittson County.
In August, groups of Romanians and people from Northern Ireland were driving across the border through fields, ditches and even on the railroad tracks. One group consisted of a man, a pregnant woman and four small children, Vig said. They crossed on the railroad tracks at the Canadian-Pacific rail yard at Noyes. They were in a rental Jeep and drove on the tracks, completely wrecking the front tires. They entered the U.S. and kept driving down Highway 75.
Eventually, law enforcement caught them near Humboldt. The vehicle sat on the side of Highway 75 with no front tires for a couple weeks before being removed. The interior of the vehicle showed plain evidence that children were involved – empty milk containers, crushed graham crackers, candy wrappers.
Vig said that group of people were processed and then released into the United States. This is a typical example of family units being protected under current federal immigration law, which is known as Title 8.
Another group, just days earlier, apparently separated with the plan for some to cross at the Lancaster Port of Entry with their pickups and campers to retrieve the other group near Caribou. Both groups were caught.
On Wednesday, Aug. 23, CBP at the Lancaster port notified the Kittson County Sheriff’s Office of the situation.
“They had all sorts of clothes, suitcases, duffle bags, just a lot of stuff,” Vig said. “In the vehicles were sippy cups and stuff like that. But, there was just a man driving the one pickup and a woman driving the other.”
Around the same time, one of the county’s trail cameras near Caribou took a picture of a black pickup crossing the border. Those cameras are linked to the sheriff’s and deputies’ cell phones.
“So we have a couple guys head that way while me and another guy start heading to Lancaster, thinking they’ve obviously got to be connected,” Vig said.
CBP seized the campers and the pickups at the port, while deputies discovered the black vehicle by Caribou got stuck. But, another vehicle got through and carried all 16 people who crossed – eight adults and eight children – to Thief River Falls before they were apprehended, processed and released.
Punishment vs. Consequences
Just as their crossing locations vary, so do the consequences for many who illegally cross the border into the United States. For “family units,” whether real or pretend, they are processed and released according to federal law.
Patrol Agent in Charge Xavier Ruiz said these types of crossings are up 200 percent over the same time last year in the Grand Forks sector, along with apprehensions and property seizures. Over the last several months, the majority of illegal crossings have been people from Romania and Northern Ireland.
“On the Romanian side, they’re known as gypsies. On the Irish side, they’re known as travelers. They don’t stay in one location very long,” Ruiz said. “They sort of bounce around. They have, at least in the law enforcement community, a reputation of being involved in some illicit activity – credit card fraud and skimming, identity theft, stealing in general.”
Ruiz said most of these border crossers are moving on, especially those with family units because they’re heading to larger cities. However, those caught are not just released, he added.
“Everybody’s processed and goes through the system and is identified,” Ruiz said. “For the most part, they’re getting removed right now. Absent some other circumstances where we have some small children or family units, they’re handled a little differently. Nobody’s let go without a consequence.”
According to Title 8, some illegal migrants are immediately sent back to their own countries or the previous country they passed through if they don’t request asylum, or have committed or are wanted for a crime. Should they request asylum in the U.S., they are then processed through the immigration court system and placed in long-term housing to await their case reviews. Others who are approved for asylum are released with a notice to appear in court.
Title 8 calls for most parents and children who are together to be released, with some adults being monitored through GPS tracking and home curfews.
If there are any unaccompanied children who cross the border illegally, they are handled through the Department of Health and Human Services.
“Immigration and Customs Enforcement will always try to detain illegal border crossers until they are removed, if able,” said David Marcus, a border patrol agent with strategic communications in the Grand Forks Sector, in an email. “However, sometimes there are circumstances where detention is not feasible for various reasons, but those people who are not detained are still in removal proceedings and will be removed once they have their immigration hearing.”
Although the good news is these groups tend to move through Kittson County and the surrounding area, law enforcement still encourages and cautions the public to be cautious. Vig said it’s just good practice anyway – lock doors at night, secure vehicles, lock outbuildings, remove keys from any vehicles.
“I’ve always been that guy. When I go to bed at night, my doors are locked, and I know a lot of people who don’t lock their doors at night,” Vig said. “I don’t want people to be panicky, but I think it’s just good practice to lock up your stuff.”
Ruiz agreed, saying in addition to keeping an eye out for strange activity, residents should definitely secure their homes, vehicles and belongings.