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Deaths of four family members at U.S.-Canada border sheds light on human smuggling dangers

Immigrant advocates and federal authorities say human smugglers prey on vulnerable populations, leading them to attempt dangerous border crossings.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Dr. Miguel Fiol has not slept well the past five nights, ever since he learned about the family of four that froze to death last week on the Canada-U.S. border.

“The word I use is ‘indignant.’ I’m indignant about these deaths,” the University of Minnesota neurologist and immigrant advocate said. “It shouldn’t have happened. That’s the word. Indignant.”

Along with a group of volunteers, Fiol has taken multiple humanitarian trips to the southern border in recent years, often providing medical care to some of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

Based on that experience, he instantly recognized what may have happened to those four family members in Manitoba, a tragedy that has emerged with clearer details after the U.S. Attorney in Minnesota charged 47-year-old Steve Shand with human smuggling. The case has shed a light on the dangerous problem of border smuggling and has garnered international media attention, prompting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to promise action while calling the deaths “absolutely mind-blowing.”

According to a criminal complaint, investigators believe the four family members may have become separated from a larger group of India natives, all working with Steve Shand to cross into the United States in northwestern Minnesota. Special Agent John Stanley wrote that “most had limited or no English language speaking ability” and appeared to hail from Gujarat, a state in western India. One of the migrants told investigators that “he paid a significant amount of money to enter Canada from India under a fraudulently obtained student visa,” with the goal of crossing into the U.S. to reunite with an uncle in Chicago.

The situation reminds Fiol of the predatory smugglers that bring people into the United States through the southern border with Mexico.

“I work with a lot of Latino immigrants, undocumented immigrants, and the stories I hear all the time are terrible. As terrible as the story from this family,” Fiol said. “Smugglers charge a huge amount of money. I heard from somebody in Guatemala, that it cost $25,000. They charge a horrible amount of money, and then the [immigrants] are not equipped for the hardship of the smuggler trail.”

Just this weekend, in another example of those dangers, the U.S. Coast Guard launched a search effort in the Atlantic Ocean after a boat capsized off the coast of Florida during severe weather, in a case the agency described as “a suspected human smuggling venture.”

There is no exact data on human smuggling, but federal statistics show there is much more border activity in the South as opposed to the North. In fiscal year 2021, the government reported more than 1.7 million “encounters” at the Southwest land border, compared to just 27,000 on the Northern land border.

Although human smuggling attempts are less common in parts of northern Minnesota or North Dakota, they can still pose incredible risks to immigrants because of the frigid temperatures. Last week, the wind chill hovered around negative 40 degrees.

“You have the smugglers who are interested really in only one thing: And that’s exploiting them for their money,” said Jamie Holt, acting Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations in St. Paul. “The conditions when these individuals were trying to cross the border were very, very harsh. Very cold, whiteout, the wind was blowing. And they’re dropped off in a foreign country and told to walk in a specific direction with no real guidance. That’s really intimidating and very, very difficult.”

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Holt said human smuggling suspects sometimes use the internet to recruit, but oftentimes they become connected with migrants through word-of-mouth, particularly in more remote regions of the world.

It is not clear from the criminal complaint how Shand became connected with these natives of western India, but investigators said they believe he’s involved in a “larger human smuggling operation.” Shand appeared in federal court on Monday, but no further court dates have been set and he was given an order for release without bond. He will be released with restrictions “when transportation is coordinated,” according to a federal court spokesperson. Shand declined to speak with investigators, according to the criminal complaint.

Shand, a naturalized American citizen originally from Jamaica, currently resides in Florida. Court documents indicate that he picked up at least two of the western Indian immigrants in a van he rented from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Credit: Grand Forks County Correctional Center
Steve Shand, 47, is charged with human smuggling.

While Holt would not comment on the specifics of this investigation, she said that human smuggling suspects often lure vulnerable populations with false promises.

“They’ll tell them it’s quite easy to cross the border, and in reality, it’s not,” Holt said. “There are a lot of elements and things that can happen to these individuals along the way, which can jeopardize their safety and unfortunately, in this instance, their lives.”

Some of the surviving Indian natives, for example, said they had been walking around for more than 11 hours in the cold, before border agents picked them up following Shand’s arrest. A spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said they have all been “processed for removal and/or placed into removal proceedings as per the Immigration and Nationality Act.”

Law enforcement still has not identified the four family members who were found dead in rural Manitoba, just feet from the U.S. border in a snowy, remote field.

However, the case has shaken the Gujarati community in Winnipeg, and officials in India have pledged to offer their assistance.

“This is a grave tragedy,” Ajay Bisaria, the High Commissioner of India to Canada, said on Twitter. “An Indian consular team is traveling today from [the Toronto consulate] to Manitoba to coordinate and help. We will work with Canadian authorities to investigate these disturbing acts.”

At the University of Minnesota, Dr. Fiol said he’s planning a forum soon to talk about human smuggling and the damage these crimes inflict on people seeking a better life.

“I think we need to get upset as people, as human beings, putting ourselves in their shoes. They’re running away from poverty, running away from abuse,” Fiol said. “We must get angry and rise, and say, ‘enough is enough.’ We’re not going to let this happen again.”

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