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What we know about illegal border crossings into the U.S. from Canada

It’s hard to get a complete picture of illegal border crossings, but data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection give an idea.

A sign along Highway 61 near Grand Portage showing the distance in miles to the Canadian border.
A sign along Highway 61 near Grand Portage showing the distance in miles to the Canadian border.

Last week, Canadian authorities announced the discovery of the bodies of four family members — two adults, a teenager and a baby, all citizens of India — who authorities believe died of exposure trying to cross from Canada to the U.S.

The discovery of people who died crossing the border is far more common along the U.S.’s other border — the one with Mexico. For one thing, far more people attempt to cross that border. Along the U.S.-Mexico border, U.S. Border Protection encountered more than 1.6 million migrants in 2021 according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The International Organization for Migration, a humanitarian organization, estimates at least 65o people died trying to cross the southern border in 2021.

Though it’s a less-common route for migrants, data show hundreds of people are caught attempting to cross the northern border into the U.S. every year, dozens of them into Minnesota.

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Canada crossing data

It’s hard to get a complete picture of the number of people crossing the border illegally, since many border crossers work to avoid detection. The data that do exist come from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and only cover people who are apprehended and/or expelled by the agency — something less than the total number of crossers. (Migrants who enter the U.S. have the opportunity to make an asylum claim. But since the start of the pandemic, a policy initiated by the Trump administration and continued by the Biden administration has expelled migrants if they pose a risk of bringing a communicable disease to the country. Many have been expelled without the opportunity to make an asylum claim.)

By this measure, northern border crossings were actually way down last year. Data show the Border Protection apprehended or expelled 916 migrants along the U.S.-Canada border in the 2021 fiscal year, down from 2,155 in 2020 (all CBP data shown are in federal fiscal years, which run from October through September).

Border Patrol apprehensions or expulsions by fiscal year, northern border
Note: Starting in March of 2020, data include encounters both Title 8 apprehensions and Title 42 expulsions.
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Data show fewer people are caught crossing the border in Upper Midwest jurisdictions than on the coasts. Of the 916 Border Protection encounters last year, 90 were within the jurisdiction of the Grand Forks Border Protection sector, which includes 861 miles of border, more than half of it water, crossing Minnesota and North Dakota. Thirty-two of the encounters were in Minnesota.

Border Patrol apprehensions and expulsions along the U.S. northern border by sector for FY 2021
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

“It’s not the most common but it is desolate, and it’s wide open and not heavily patrolled,” Theresa Cardinal Brown, the managing director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said of the border near Minnesota and North Dakota.

Just as the southern border can be dangerous due to heat, the northern border presents extreme dangers in the winter due to cold. Canadian officials said the family found dead was exposed to temperature and windchill equivalent to -31 degrees Fahrenheit.

Border crossings are fairly consistent across the calendar year, said David Marcus, a Grand Forks sector Border Protection agent. Last year, data show the most Border Protection encounters in the Grand Forks sector occurring in March.

As for nationality, of the people the Grand Forks sector encountered in 2021, the most common citizenship was Mexican, followed by Romanian and Honduran.

Citizenship of people apprehended or expelled by Border Patrol Grand Forks sector, FY 21
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Crossing from Canada

Late last week, a Florida man was charged with smuggling in the case of the Indian citizens. Seven people were found alive in the U.S. in addition to the family of four found dead over the border. Court documents claim one of the people paid a significant sum to get into Canada using a fake student visa, the Associated Press reported.

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Brown said smuggling networks are generally far less sophisticated along the northern border than along the southern border.  Likewise, less is known about the people trying to make their way across the northern border because there are fewer interviews of migrants.

And migration across the U.S.-Canada border goes both ways. In fact, far more people were coming from the U.S. into Canada during the Trump administration, particularly with the former president’s rhetoric around immigration, said Emily Gilbert, a professor who specializes in citizenship and borders at the University of Toronto.

The Roseau–South Junction Border Crossing connects the cities of Roseau, Minnesota, and South Junction, Manitoba.
The Roseau–South Junction Border Crossing connects the cities of Roseau, Minnesota, and South Junction, Manitoba.
“We saw tens of thousands of people make their way from the United States into Canada as they were seeking further security and really feeling more at risk in the United States in that moment,” she said.

One reason people may try to cross the border undetected is because of a post-9/11 agreement between the U.S. and Canada that requires people to claim asylum in the first of the two countries they enter.

“You can only make an asylum claim in the first of the two countries that you arrive in. So if you arrive in Canada first because that’s your pathway … you’re supposed to make your claim in Canada and you’re not then allowed to go and make a claim in the United States,” she said. “This really impacts a lot of the undocumented people who are coming [to Canada] from South America, Central America and Mexico because, coming by land, obviously the first country of arrival is going to be the United States, which means for those people, it’s almost impossible for them to make a claim in Canada unless they cross the border in an illegitimate way.”

As for why people would be seeking to come to the U.S. instead of staying in Canada when both countries have asylum, Gilbert said it can depend on why people are seeking asylum. While both the U.S. and Canada have signed on to U.N. refugee conventions, Canada tends to be more open to claims from people persecuted for LGBTQ reasons and for domestic violence claims.

It can also have a lot to do with where the people seeking to come to the U.S. have family and community.

“One reason why people [might try] to find their way to Canada and then make their way down to the United States is because they have extended family, more of a sense of community or other kinds of things that would pull them across one border, as opposed to the other.”

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly named the U.S. border enforcement agency. It is U.S. Customs and Border Protection.