Eric Kuhn, patrol agent in charge for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection station in Pembina, North Dakota, stands for a portrait while on patrol near the Canadian border. Since 2010, the Border Patrol at Pembina has seen an increase in asylum seekers, primarily those who fled African countries, trying to sneak across the border into Canada.
Eric Kuhn, patrol agent in charge for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection station in Pembina, North Dakota, stands for a portrait while on patrol near the Canadian border. Since 2010, the Border Patrol at Pembina has seen an increase in asylum seekers, primarily those who fled African countries, trying to sneak across the border into Canada. - 

This story was first published on MPRnews.org 

Bashir Yussuf had survived Somalia's violence, fled to South America, then struggled through dense Panamanian jungle to make it north and seek asylum.

Now he stood freezing in waist-high snow in the desolate Minnesota-Canadian borderlands, wondering if these last few miles of his journey might be the ones that finally killed him.

He started to walk.

"Sometimes you crawl because you cannot walk," recalled Yussuf, who crossed into Canada earlier this month through deep snow in the middle of the night at an abandoned border site near the village of Emerson. "Every step you take, you go deep."

Yussuf, 28, and two other refugees had each paid a driver $600 to deliver them from Minneapolis to far northwestern Minnesota. They were told the border crossing would be a five-minute walk from the drop-off. Three hours later, when Yussuf finally reached a Canadian border station, he was so spent that agents had to remove his boots.

"I was like, I give up," he said. "This is your final night."

Yussuf was lucky. Two Ghanaians who'd tried a similar crossing weeks earlier became trapped in the brutal cold and suffered frostbite so severe it cost one man all of his fingers and parts of both ears. The other kept only his thumb.

Still, they come.

Dozens of mostly African refugees are finding their way to the snow-covered farm fields that straddle the international border on either side of the Red River in North Dakota and Minnesota.

They came to the United States originally seeking asylum but are fleeing to Canada, in part because they fear the political climate in U.S. makes it more likely they will be deported.

The crossings have accelerated this winter to the point where they are overwhelming Manitoba's refugee aid system. Canadian officials, worried about the fate of refugees as well as their country's border security, have become increasingly alarmed about the illegal passages.

The gate at the abandoned Noyes border crossing into Canada.   
The gate at the abandoned Noyes border crossing into Canada.    - 

It shows no signs of stopping.

Minnesota immigration attorneys say Donald Trump's election as president triggered panic among many refugees who'd been hoping for asylum in the U.S. but now see Canada as their only chance.

In the Twin Cities, migrants have managed to find drivers and quasi-smugglers who for a few hundred dollars promise to deliver them to the border, but don't say where, exactly.

It's a journey that might kill someone this winter. But the stories of Yussuf and others who have made the crossing suggest that despite the cost, many more will try.

'Things were not as they had thought'

Yussuf's winter journey that night to the Minnesota-Canadian border began nearly four years earlier in Somalia, where he said he was targeted as a minority tribe member who fell in love with a girl from a majority tribe and was badly beaten.

There's no way to verify his story, but he said the incident left him hospitalized and convinced him to flee the country.

He took a route familiar to many asylum seekers, flying to South America and making his way to the southern U.S. border. He flew into Colombia and paid a man to guide him through the jungle across the border into Panama.

He said he'd been living in San Diego, working odd jobs while he waited for his refugee claim to be processed. But his claim was denied, and he was ordered deported late in 2015.

For about two months before he fled to Canada, Yussuf lived with family in Minneapolis. A friend there found a man willing to drive Yussuf to the border. Yussuf said he was convinced he had to flee the U.S. before he was deported. A return to Somalia, he said, would be a death sentence.

"Why I take this risk?" he asked. "[It] is because there was no humanity in the United States any longer because of the new administration."

Fear is driving people to take desperate action, according to Maggie Yaboah, president of the 1,200-member Ghanaian Union of Manitoba, which often provides informal assistance to new arrivals.

Yaboah, who immigrated to Canada more than 30 years ago, said it used to be that one or two refugees a year arrived from Ghana. But since last fall, more than two dozen men have walked across the border into Manitoba.

She said many initially fled Ghana because they were gay, and their sexual orientation made them a target of physical attacks and government persecution. They had gone to America first, believing they would be welcomed.

"But when they got there," she said, "things were not as they had thought."

After the men had their asylum claims denied during the Obama administration, they fled to Canada to avoid deportation. Yaboah has helped them 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 lately with two Ghanaians 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 as they tried with their hands to lift the snow from their boots.

"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," Mohammed said as he sat for an interview in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with heavily bandaged hands in his lap.

A dike on the U.S.-Canadian border near Noyes, Minnesota. Because Emerson, Manitoba, is nearby, the U.S. Border Patrol says this remote area is a popular spot for asylum seekers to attempt sneaking into Canada. 
A dike on the U.S.-Canadian border near Noyes, Minnesota. Because Emerson, Manitoba, is nearby, the U.S. Border Patrol says this remote area is a popular spot for asylum seekers to attempt sneaking into Canada.  - 

Mohammed had all of his fingers and parts of both ears amputated. Iyal kept only the thumb on his right hand. They will have to relearn the basics of life.

"You can't put on your shoe by yourself. It's terrible," said Iyal, sitting on the edge of a bed in a tiny room in a rehabilitation center in Winnipeg.

But the men say they do not regret the dangerous choice they made.

"We lost our fingers, but we still alive," Iyal said. "I know with the help of people of Canada, we can do something with our life."

The men will likely need to wait weeks to find out if they will be granted asylum in Canada.

Mohammed and Iyal arrived in the U.S. separately from Ghana seeking refugee status, traveling the common route through South America. They expected a new life in the States. But both said they were detained by the Obama administration after arriving.

Iyal said he was put in handcuffs and chains and taken to a detention center in Arizona where he spent two years. He claims he was told 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.

"If somebody told me the United States would do such a thing, I would not have believed it until I got there and I saw it with my own eyes," Iyal said. 

The two men said they met at a bus station in Minneapolis. Both had fled their homes in a panic after being contacted by immigration officials.

"When I saw that letter, my body was shaking. I couldn't even sleep that day," Mohammed said. He packed a bag and ran the next day, telling no one where he was going.

Iyal had been living with an uncle in New York. He also ran without telling anyone. He said his uncle did not know where he had gone until he saw his story in the news.

The men remain optimistic. Despite losing all of his fingers, Mohammed, who said he earned a living playing soccer in Ghana, has a plan.

"I want to go to a coaching course to get a license and start coaching kids," he said. "That's my dream right now."

'You may not survive'

From across the border in Minnesota, immigration attorneys and community advocates have witnessed the rush of asylum seekers heading north. That sense of urgency swelled during the presidential election as then-candidate Donald Trump advanced closer to the Oval Office with his promise to deport millions. 

As president, Trump's executive order halting the refugee program and barring travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States as a step to keep out "radical Islamic terrorists" has fueled even more panic.

At the same time, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made clear his nation's plan to embrace refugees, even greeting newly arrived Syrian families off the plane.

The week Trump signed his executive order on immigration, Trudeau tweeted, "To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith."

That contrast is impossible for asylum seekers in the U.S. to ignore, said Abdinasir Abdulahi, a Somali-American immigration attorney in Minneapolis.

"They're reading the signals," Abdulahi said. "You have Trump saying, 'Day One, I'll deport you.' But at the same time, you have Canada giving all the signals that, 'We're welcoming. You would find at least hope here.'"

Abdulahi learned through one of his clients how powerful that hope could be.

Several months ago, he said he was working on the asylum application of a Somali man who Abdulahi thought had a strong case for receiving legal status in the United States. In Somalia, the asylum seeker's family members were killed by the terrorist group al-Shabab, and the man himself had received threats.

But in the Twin Cities, as the date for the man's court hearing grew near, Abdulahi had trouble reaching him. Only later did the attorney learn from his man's relatives that he'd gone north.

"The family told us he left for Canada and that he was worried that Trump would deport him," Abdulahi said. "This was a person who had a very good case. We hoped he would stay at least until his case was heard."

In the West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis, Mohamud Noor has seen the desperation of asylum seekers intent on heading north.

Just a few weeks ago, Noor said a young man walked into his office, pondering his options and emboldened by others who made the slog to Canada.

"He's seen others who have crossed the border," Noor said. "He thinks, 'What if I cross the border?'"

The remote winter landscape of Pembina County, North Dakota, a few miles south of the Canadian border, near Emerson, Manitoba.
The remote winter landscape of Pembina County, North Dakota, a few miles south of the Canadian border, near Emerson, Manitoba. - 

Noor said the man, whose asylum claim was denied, had already spent more than two years in an immigration detention center before he was released on parole.

And although he was ordered for removal, the man considered himself more fortunate than friends who were still being held in detention centers after more than three years, Noor said. He, at least, had another chance to make it to the Canadian border.

"He said he was lucky," Noor said. "His other option was to wait until he was deported."

The U.S. and Canada have what's called the Safe Third Country Agreement. The pact, signed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, says refugees must claim asylum in the country where they first arrive. So a refugee arriving at a Canadian border checkpoint could be turned back to the U.S.

That's why refugees are crossing the border illegally to make their claim on Canadian soil, according to Mitchell Goldberg, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers.

"They're being told the only way you can make a claim in Canada is to cross the border," Goldberg said. "They're being told that's illegal, but in fact that's the only way for them to make a refugee claim, and if their life is in danger in their country, that's the only recourse left for them to get into the country and make a claim inside."

He and other immigration advocacy leaders are calling on the Canadian government to scrap that agreement. They say the U.S. is no longer a safe place for refugees.

"We are witnessing a dramatic shift away from basic norms of human rights and refugee protection in the U.S.," Goldberg said. "In this environment, we simply cannot rely on the Trump administration to protect the refugees we turn away at our borders. Canada has a duty to suspend enforcement of the STCA immediately," 

It's not just Canada's welcoming message that might be luring people across the border. A backlog in U.S. immigration cases, fueled by staffing shortages in the asylum system and an influx of immigrants from Central America, are extending the wait times for immigrants whose cases have yet to be decided.

In Minnesota alone, the number of pending immigration court cases has increased by about 52 percent, from 3,194 to 4,846, over the past five years, according to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

"We'll have people waiting sometimes for years for that answer for asylum," said Michele Garnett McKenzie, deputy director for The Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis.

Those lengthy wait times, she said, "are causing people to not want to be living in that stress and in limbo."

The fact that asylum seekers are risking their fingers, toes, ears and lives to trek across the border troubles many Twin Cities community leaders.

Kwao Amegashie, an immigration attorney and past president of the Ghanaian Association of Minnesota, said he was astonished when he read a news story about Iyal and Mohammed, the Ghanaian men who lost most of their fingers in pursuit of refuge.

Amegashie, who attended school in North Dakota, said most likely these newcomers had no idea just how unforgiving the Northern Plains could be at the coldest time of the year.

"I started thinking, probably this person didn't talk to anybody in the Ghanaian community here, who probably would have told that person, 'No, it's going to be hazardous,'" Amegashie said. "We as a community can start educating people that, 'Hey if you're doing this, you may not survive.'"

'Could be a pretty bad outcome all around'

The U.S.-Canadian border a few miles either side of Interstate 29 is a popular spot for illegal border crossings. 

At the spot where Yusuf entered Canada, there is a simple metal gate across the border and the road is blocked with snowdrifts. Just across the border there's still a sign, rather faded, that says "Welcome to Canada." Beyond that sign is Emerson.

"For us, it's the predominant border activity we see up here," said Eric Kuhn, patrol agent in charge of the Pembina Border Patrol office in North Dakota. He oversees about 100 miles of border in Minnesota and North Dakota.

The agency won't provide information on how many agents work out of this office, but said about 2,000 agents are deployed along the entire 4,000-mile border.

Kuhn noted several of the commonly used stealth border crossing points, most within a 16-mile border segment easily accessible from Interstate 29.

The typical scenario goes like this: An acquaintance or family member gives the refugee a ride north from Minneapolis and drops them somewhere near the border late at night. The person seeking asylum then walks across the border and contacts Canadian authorities.

People who are picked up can face administrative sanctions, such as having a tourist visa cancelled. They can also be detained if they have a deportation order in the U.S. But authorities don't have exact data on people heading north because it is not against the law to sneak out of the country.

"Whether it's loose or highly organized, it is a very well-known route," Kuhn said. "Predominantly Somali nationals, or East Africans in general, can find out to come to Minneapolis and in short order can get up here to cross the border."

Kuhn does not believe organized crime or gangs are part of the movement of refugees, but agents often don't get much information from people they do stop and question.

"And understandably so," Kuhn said. "A lot of these people are coming from pretty war-torn, pretty terrible places where you wouldn't give much information to any authority figures because authority figures are not to be trusted in many of the places these refugees originate from."

There's no doubt that the number of people attempting to cross illegally has leaped in recent years.

Canadian Border Services Agency data show that from April 2013 to March 2014, 68 refugees seeking asylum illegally crossed the border near Pembina. From April through December of 2016, 430 people made the crossing.

The walk could be anywhere from 1 mile to 5 or 6 miles through snow-covered fields. The border patrol has rescued lost refugees 20 miles south of the border.

The rural intersection of 410th Street and 180th Avenue in Kittson County, east of Noyes, Minnesota. The tree line on the horizon marks the Canadian border. According to the U.S. Border Patrol, this remote location is a popular area for refugees to walk into Canada. 
The rural intersection of 410th Street and 180th Avenue in Kittson County, east of Noyes, Minnesota. The tree line on the horizon marks the Canadian border. According to the U.S. Border Patrol, this remote location is a popular area for refugees to walk into Canada.  - 

Sometimes the U.S. Border Patrol sees a shadowy figure on a surveillance camera heading north and simply passes the 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 criminal background check turns up something, they are released.

So why bother chasing people who are leaving the country? Kuhn said 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 U.S.

Kuhn wants to keep the flow of refugees contained to this corridor along I-29. He worries what will happen if they try to cross the border in even more remote areas farther east in Minnesota.

"You start driving them into areas where they're more likely to get in trouble and less likely to have a cell phone signal," Kuhn said, "and it could be a pretty bad outcome all around."

The number of refugees heading north to Canada is increasing, but it's not a new phenomenon. U.S. border patrol officials say they've seen increasing traffic since about 2010. Somali native Liibaan Ali said he crossed the border in the winter of 2010, but he didn't walk. After coming to the U.S. in 2001, Ali said he was granted Temporary Protected Status and given a work permit. He got a job, married and had a daughter.

Then in 2010, his protected status and work permit were revoked. He traveled to Minneapolis, where a friend told him he knew people were paying truckers for a ride across the border. So Ali went to a rest area near Minneapolis where he said he found a truck driver willing to smuggle him across the border.

"And he say like, 'How much you gonna pay me?' And I was like, 'How much you want?' He was like, $2,000. At that time I had in my pocket like $1,800."

After negotiating a $1,700 payment, Ali said the next morning he crawled into the sleeper of an 18-wheeler. He was nervous about the border crossing, but said the trucker reassured him.

"He said, 'Canadian border, as long as they don't suspect something, they not going to come inside your truck. They gonna scan your trailer, but they not going to come inside your truck.' And I was like, 'That's cool.' I know that's illegal, but I don't have no other choice at that time."

After two tries, Ali said he was granted refugee status in Winnipeg. He's since been reunited with his wife and his daughter, who is an American citizen.

He's very happy he took the risk to come to Canada as he watches the current battle over immigration in the U.S.

"People in Winnipeg, they are so friendly, they are so nice and sweet people. We don't have that kind of Islamophobia."

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

Up until this winter, the group had funding for one staff person who handled 50 to 60 refugee cases a year. Now they might get 20 cases on a single weekend, said Executive Director Rita Chahal.

From last April until mid-February, the organization has assisted more than 325 refugees who illegally crossed the international border.

Chahal has borrowed staff from other programs to help, but she's not sure the current pace is sustainable.

"This particular program and the services we provide are not funded by any level of government. So we have to rely very heavily on private donations." Chahal sees no sign the influx of refugees will slow.

"Given the general trends," she said, "we think this will continue. We think as the weather gets warmer, we may see more people coming through the Emerson border."

While some Canadian politicians think the flow of refugees needs to be better controlled, Chahal said her nonprofit stays out of politics and keeps its focus on helping people.

"I think we have to always remember," she said, "that it's a human behind each number and each file."

Follow Dan Gunderson at @gundersondan