by Allison Light
It’s around 30°F at the Canada border, where Manitoba, North Dakota, and Minnesota meet. We clamber out of our warm vans at a decommissioned border crossing and look over the raised mound to our right, at the frosty stretch of land where refugees cross “irregularly” from the US in order to claim asylum in Canada. The sign is gray-black, with simple white font saying “Welcome to Canada: Please stop and report entry” in English and French.
Just a little over two miles west is the current legal border crossing, where Canada is trying to encourage newcomers to enter. But if they go through the established channels, many wouldn’t qualify to stay. The Safe Third Country agreement, a treaty between the US and Canada, states that refugee seekers must make their claim for resettlement in the first safe country they set for in. Many fleeing President Trump’s new immigration policies are aware of this, so the tiny town of Emerson has seen a huge influx in border-crossers. Greg Janzen is Reeve of Emerson and the surrounding towns (it’s like a mayor, for multiple nearby municipalities). He says the land under his jurisdiction includes 12-15 miles of the Canada/US border. The trickle turned to a flood last spring, when the area saw 170 irregular crossers in one month alone, according to Janzen. He says the number has stabilized at around 80 a month since the summer. For context, the town of Emerson has around 350 people, and “first responders” are members of a volunteer fire department who also work full day jobs.
It’s one thing to sit in the Emerson Courthouse and Town Hall building and hear Reeve (a mayor of a collection of nearby municipalities) Greg Janzen talks about refugees who’ve lost fingers and toes from hypothermia, and even one woman in her 40’s who died in the attempt. It’s another thing entirely to stand near the drainage ditch where some had made their crossing, where even ten minutes in the 30°F air is too much. He’s worried about it getting colder, but not for himself – Janzen seems to be built for this weather, casually chatting with his hood down and his calloused hands exposed to the chill. He’s worried that the “border jumpers,” as he calls them, will keep coming even as temperatures drop below zero.
“The media says – ‘It’s cold, dress.’ They still don’t dress,” he says. He doesn’t understand why the biggest influx comes in the winter, rather in the summer, and frequently in the dead of night. Almost all are single young men, but the families are the ones who make the photos. “For every one-hundred, there are about two [children].” Sometimes their cells don’t work in the cold, and the refugees knock on doors in the community. And though Emerson is growing wearier and warier of all of the passers-through, as of right now, many of those doors are still opening.