A 47-year-old Florida man made his first court appearance on Monday in relation to an alleged human-smuggling operation at the Manitoba-Minnesota border, while on the other side of the world a community in India is reacting to the deaths of four people who perished while attempting the same passage in treacherous winter conditions last week.
The deceased have been described by RCMP as two adults, a male believed to be in his teens and an infant. A statement from RCMP on Monday said the force won’t confirm the names of the victims until next of kin have been notified and police “have 100-per-cent certainty of their identities.”
After a brief virtual appearance in a Minnesota court on Monday, Steve Shand of Deltona, Fla., was released on bail. American authorities allege he transported two people who had entered the United States illegally.
He has not been charged in connection with the deaths, but according to a criminal complaint, American authorities suspect him of being part of a larger human-smuggling operation. No one else has been publicly identified or charged in relation to the case.
Mr. Shand, who in 2018 bankruptcy documents described himself as a taxi and Uber driver, was released by agreement of the defence and prosecution. He must abide by a number of conditions while on release, including that he return home to Florida, surrender his passport, stay out of trouble with police and have no contact with anyone involved in the case. No date has been set for his next court appearance.
American authorities charged Mr. Shand on Jan. 19, after he was found in a rental van, on the U.S. side of the border, with two Indian nationals who are alleged to have walked over the border from Canada. Five other people were found walking in the same remote rural area a short time later.
The bodies of the four other people, who had been travelling with the group but had become separated, were later discovered by RCMP on the Manitoba side of the border. The criminal complaint against Mr. Shand said the people picked up by border patrol spoke Gujarati, a language from an area of western India.
Chief Patrol Agent Anthony S. Good with United States Border Patrol told The Globe and Mail on Monday that the seven Indian nationals picked up by border agents last week will be turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to face immigration and deportation hearings. Two were treated in hospital for injuries related to the extreme cold on the night of their crossing.
A story in the Indian publication Vibes of India describes an active pipeline of people from western India into the U.S., where the migrants seek what the article calls “that elusive American dream.”
The story says the man who died was a schoolteacher who had saved up for 10 years to make the trip, then paid large sums of money to agents who promised to help his family enter the U.S. from Canada to join relatives.
The article says another family that was attempting the same trip is unaccounted for, but authorities in both Canada and the U.S. say they have completed searches and they don’t believe there are any additional victims in the area.
Gujaratis in Winnipeg organized an online prayer meeting in honour of the four people who died. Dozens of mourners from as far away as Toronto and Montreal attended the Monday video conference. The group sang solemn Gujarati hymns, and attendees expressed grief and shock at the manner of the group’s death. Some called for greater awareness of the dangers of human trafficking.
Chief Patrol Agent Good said the matter remains under investigation by his agency, along with RCMP, Canada Border Services and U.S. Homeland Security. He said the agencies are paying attention to changing trends at the border, and he warned anybody considering making such a crossing not to do so.
“Smugglers only care about money. They don’t care about the individual’s well-being,” he said. “They don’t care about human life, and so you’re really risking the life of yourself and your loved ones. The real cost here is your life, not what the smuggler charges.”
With a report from Uday Rana
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