Winter weather, vast expanse make patrolling Canada-U.S. border a daunting challenge

SAINT VINCENT, Minn. — A bleak panorama of frozen, windblown prairie extends in every direction behind Katy Siemer as she points north, past a barren stand of trees to a pipeline compressor station a few hundred metres away in Manitoba.

The U.S. Border Patrol agent is standing alongside a similar facility in Minnesota that she says undocumented migrants use as a meeting spot when sneaking over from Canada, usually under cover of darkness.

At the moment, it's a blindingly bright, sunny day, beautiful in every respect but the -29 C temperature.

"Oh, this is very mild," says Siemer, the deputy patrol agent in charge of the station in nearby Pembina, N.D., nary a trace of sarcasm in her voice.

In other words, Siemer has seen worse. Like last week, when RCMP in Canada recovered the frozen bodies of a family from India. Investigators believe they were part of a larger group of undocumented Indian nationals that agents encountered on the U.S. side shortly before the bodies were discovered.

The numbers up north will never compare to the sheer volume at the southern border, where agents encountered more than 420 people in various groups over the weekend near Brownsville, Tex.

But the causes are the same — and the solutions just about as effective.

"The danger is that you start replicating the same approach that's been taken on the southern border, and it's not actually had the intended result, ever," said Regina Jefferies, an expert in immigration and refugee law at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash.

"It's more complex than just, 'We need more resources to put people on snowmobiles to patrol these really remote spaces of farmland.'"

Both the U.S. and Canada need to think about the issue not only in terms of "pull factors," she said — those elements of life in North America that might attract irregular migration — but also "push factors" in the form of foreign-policy decisions that compel migrants to flee their home countries.