The number of people seeking asylum at the United States-Canada border or trying to cross into America has increased in the last year, which experts say is part of the larger global migration patterns they're seeing.
U.S. authorities have repeatedly warned of the perils of crossing the northern border, especially in the winter months when temperatures can drop below zero and storms can aggravate the conditions.
“It’s extremely dangerous with the cold weather, the cold water,” Brady Waikel, in charge of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection station in Niagara Falls, told WIVB-TV of Buffalo.
Despite the dangers, more migrants, mostly Mexicans, decide to try and cross the northern border, the longest in the world at 5,525 miles. The border with Mexico measures 1,900 miles; then-President Donald Trump built 450 miles of border wall for about $1 billion.
The most up-to-date figures from CBP recorded 189,402 encounters at the northern border in fiscal year 2023. This includes people who arrive at legal points of entry and turn themselves in to request asylum, as well as those who are captured after illegally crossing into the U.S.
There were 10,021 arrests for illegal crossings in that period. According to an analysis by Noticias Telemundo, migrants from Mexico lead the number of illegal crossings from Canada, with 4,868 interceptions, up from 882 arrests in 2022. Other countries with the most migrant interceptions were India, at 1,630, compared to 237 arrests in 2022, and Venezuela, at 753, as opposed to five arrests the year before.
“We have exceeded 6,700 apprehensions in less than 1 year, exceeding the previous 11 years combined,” Robert García, head of the Border Patrol in the Swanton, Vermont sector, said in early September on X.
As of press time, CBP had not responded to Noticias Telemundo’s requests for an interview with García.
Although the figures on the northern border are modest compared to the 2,045,838 encounters that CBP recorded on the border with Mexico during 2023, experts told Noticias Telemundo the numbers are rising.
“Government immigration policies don't change the need or reasoning of people who decide to cross in one direction or another," said Shauna Labman, director of the Human Rights Program at the University of Winnipeg, Canada, who added that some people are fleeing and seeking protection and thus making "dangerous decisions."
Migration Policy Institute analyst Colleen Putzel-Kavanaugh said they're seeing high levels of migration around the world, the highest since World War II. "People are moving at a faster rate than in the past, and that is also seen in the north," she said.
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Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy published a series of TikTok videos in October where he walked along hiking trails in Canada near Pittsburg, New Hampshire and crossed a stream into the U.S., saying it was easier than crossing the Rio Grande.
“Don’t just build the wall. Build both walls,” he said during the Nov. 8 Republican primary debate.
Regarding Ramaswamy’s proposal to build two border walls in the U.S., experts said it would be an extremely expensive — and ineffective — solution.
“I think it would not be viable for several reasons. One of them is that the barriers on the border between the United States and Mexico have been shown to not slow migration but, in fact, push migration into certain corridors where people can cross," Putzel-Kavanaugh said. "The other point is that the northern border has a variety of geographies with rivers, lakes, forests and that would be a challenge because of the environmental impacts."
Crossings turn deadly
Sometimes, the risk that immigration agents warn about is illustrated tragically: José Leos Cervantes, 45, originally from Aguascalientes, Mexico, collapsed after crossing the border into the U.S. from Quebec at the end of February and was pronounced dead at a hospital.
In March, eight people from two families, one from Romania and one from India, died while trying to cross the St. Lawrence River. Their bodies were found in Akwesasne Mohawk territory, which straddles the Canada-U.S. border.
“It also happens that many people cannot find work in Canada and try to go to the United States. But it is very dangerous, there are always very tragic cases of people who lose their fingers, their clothes stick to their skin, and some die from freezing or for other reasons,” Camelia Tigau, a visiting professor at the University of Toronto and a scholar at the Center for Research on North America at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told Noticias Telemundo.
Another aspect that complicates the situation along the northern border is that states have transferred migrants who entered through Mexico to areas near Canada, so they can request asylum in the neighboring country in search of better job opportunities, health benefits and a more nimble immigration system.
Miguel Ángel Gutiérrez, a Venezuelan migrant who was transferred in February from Arizona to Plattsburgh, New York, told Noticias Telemundo that being sent north hasn't been easy.
"Well, we have to get to Canada and start producing to send to our family; I left Venezuela months ago," he said. "A shelter organization — in Denver paid for our ticket, but here we've been practically stranded. ... We weren't counting on them to leave us here."
The increased presence of border agents along the northern border has had repercussions for Latino communities living in Vermont where migrants often work in the dairy industry.
"Immigration’s response is to mobilize more agents to these border places with Canada like Vermont and New York — now they ask everyone for documents and there are more deportations, too," said Nacho de la Cruz, a community leader in Vermont. He said it has impacted Latinos who have legal status "but are discriminated against because they speak Spanish."
Canadian asylum numbers rise after changes
Canada is seeing more claims for asylum: Figures released by Canada’s immigration, refugee and citizenship agency show that 7,270 asylum applications were processed in September alone. In 2022, by contrast, the monthly average was 3,600 applications and it was fewer than 1,100 in 2021.
The increase in asylum claims, experts say, is due to more global migration, as well as changes the country did to help clear a post-Covid backlog of visa cases that was disrupting trade and tourism.
The Canadian government recently waived certain visa requirements, specifically the one that ensured a person left at the end of an authorized stay, according to Fernando Torres, an immigration lawyer based in Vancouver, Canada.
Also since March, after an agreement between Canada and the U.S., a person entering Canada through an unofficial point of entry from the U.S. would lose the right to request asylum.
Since then, while irregular land crossings to Quebec have dropped to double digits, the number of asylum-seekers arriving legally at airports across the country has more than tripled, from 1,595 in March to 5,435 in September.
“It is illegal to enter between ports of entry and it's not safe. We encourage asylum seekers to cross the border at designated ports of entry. The Safe Third Country Agreement applies to the entire land border,” Karine Martel, spokesperson for the Canada Border Services Agency, said in a statement to Noticias Telemundo.
Migrant smuggling increases
A Times Union investigation reviewed dozens of court records that showed that the boom in northern border crossings has become a lucrative opportunity for smuggling rings that earn tens of thousands of dollars for each group they transport across the border.
The cases reveal that New York has rapidly grown as an immigration corridor and a human trafficking node. Migrants take a flight from Mexico to travel to Toronto or Montreal. Some stay there for a few months to work, but then often contact a smuggler and agree to pay for their services to cross the U.S. border.
Despite the harsh weather conditions, for many people the northern border is more attractive since they don't deal with the gangs that kidnap and exploit migrants arriving in the southern region. In addition, Mexicans don't need a visa to enter Canada, which various experts said can encourage the current rise in migration.
Noticias Telemundo conducted searches on social networks such as TikTok with key terms such as “crossing from Canada to the US”, “passing to the United States from Canada”, and counted more than 40 videos of people explaining what their experience was like when crossing the border illegally and even offer their services as “guides” by direct message.
“The coyotes (smugglers) are now worse. Now there are coyotes online who have YouTube channels, Instagram and TikTok accounts that promote this type of absolutely irregular immigration," said Torres, the immigration lawyer in Vancouver. "As a lawyer, I do not recommend anyone to cross illegally, that only brings them problems."
Diana Cruz, a Mexican migrant, shared her experience on TikTok and said smugglers charged her and other family members more than $5,000 to cross the U.S. border from Canada. She was detained for several days by U.S. immigration authorities.
“From the beginning everything was bad — the people who are dedicated to dropping you off at the point in Canada lost us twice," she said of the smugglers. "They made us get off and enter the forest at a point where it wasn’t supposed to be. ... We got lost and when we got to the highway in the United States, we heard voices and they were from immigration."
“I spent Dec. 24 locked up, without communication, without my family," Cruz warned about her experience. Even after she was released, she warned people thinking of crossing illegally to "think about it, because they throw you like a dog in the street and they don’t care if you have a way to communicate."