An Akwesasne woman was charged last week for allegedly smuggling three foreign nationals into the U.S., triggering concerns that the persistent trickle of illegal border crossers in the area is putting the Mohawk community at risk during the COVID-19 pandemic.
On March 18, a community member was detained after crashing into four U.S. Border Patrol vehicles and charged with smuggling two nationals from India and one from Italy into the U.S. from Canada.
“Obviously we are concerned about any people coming through our community that aren’t from our territory that may have been exposed to or be carriers of the virus,” said Akwesasne Grand Chief Abram Benedict, whose government oversees the Canadian side of the community.
“It’s unfortunate that organized crime continues.”
Akwesasne is about 120 kilometres west of Montreal and straddles the Canadian and New York State border.
Akwesasne declared a state of emergency on March 16 over COVID-19 and is currently requesting any community members who travel more than 80 km away to self isolate for 14 days when they return home. Akwesasne has one case of COVID-19 from the U.S. side.
The three foreign nationals were allegedly smuggled into Akwesasne by boat across the St. Lawrence River and then driven to the Great View Motel, about seven kilometres outside the reserve’s Canadian boundary, according to court records and the office of the Assistant U.S. Attorney for the district of northern New York.
At 8:50 a.m. on March 18, agents watched the Akwesasne woman enter the hotel parking lot in her car and allegedly leave shortly after with three men in the back seat. She headed toward Fort Covington, N.Y., about two kilometres east of the motel, according to court documents.
U.S. Border Patrol agents stopped her vehicle and the three men “were seen ‘bailing out'” of the car, according to the documents. All three men were detained and charged with improper entry by an alien and are currently in custody, according to court records.
The woman then allegedly sped off in her car and crashed into four Border Patrol vehicles before she was stopped, detained and taken to hospital as a precautionary measure.
Chief worried about ‘desperate actions’ in economic slump
Benedict said the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced the shut down of large swaths of the service industry on both sides of the border, is concerning.
“I think the agencies need to continue to do their part, especially since lots of people are unemployed and people will turn to turn to desperate actions to provide for themselves,” said Benedict.
“This may not be the first case.”
Foreign nationals attempting to cross into the U.S. pay thousands of dollars to get smuggled through, court records show.
In one case, from Feb. 28, a tip from Canadian authorities led to the apprehension of four Mexican nationals who had crossed the border on foot into an area near Champlain, N.Y., south of Montreal. The detained men told U.S. authorities they were paying $6,000 US to be taken to North Dakota.
While publicly available U.S. Border Patrol statistics don’t show numbers by sectors, data shows that in 2019 about 1,500 people were caught illegally crossing into the U.S. along the Ontario-Quebec-New York State border.
Detainees may be sent back to Canada
New York State is one of the U.S. states with highest rates of COVID-19. The state had 92,381 cases as of Thursday, with the majority (52,000) in New York City.
Ontario had 2,793 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Thursday.
A total of eight foreign nationals, including the three from India and Italy, have been caught crossing into New York State from Canada within 14 kilometres of Akwesasne since March 14.
Five Mexican nationals were caught on March 16 by U.S. border authorities crossing the border in an area about 12 km east of Akwesasne, near Fort Covington.
A spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol said in an emailed statement that the agency determines whether to keep detained individuals in the U.S. or send them back to Canada “on a case by case basis, depending on the status of the individual in the U.S.”
The Canada Border Services Agency said it was up to U.S. authorities to disclose whether any individual detained crossing illegally was sent back to Canada.
Benedict said he has asked whether illegal border crossers could be intercepted before they cross into the U.S.
“These immigrants aren’t born and raised in our community… they are obviously coming from somewhere and it likely goes right by lots of enforcement agencies,” said Benedict.
“It is extremely concerning to us because our police services need to be keeping our communities safe, especially at this time, and then to have it be compounded by trafficking of people.”