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Crossings by migrants are on the rise in Hemmingford

Eugenie Officer grew up along the border in Franklin. She now lives on a road adjacent to the Canada-U.S. boundary or line in Hemmingford. She says she had heard about people crossing illegally but had never seen anything until this past February, when a section of her rural road suddenly became a hot zone.

“It’s chaos,” says Officer – especially at night. “You see cars slowing down and people running!” she exclaims, noting people have been dropped off at her house while others have walked through her backyard towards the woods. With little else to do, she says she often calls the nearest RCMP detachment.

“I think only those who are experiencing this day-to-day understand the magnitude of the issue,” Officer says. “I really feel for the people being dropped off, because even though they know what they are doing is risky, I am not sure they are told how high risk it is,” she adds.

“They are being dropped off at the road. They don’t know where they are going. They don’t speak English,” Officer explains. “It’s shocking.”

She admits the last few months have taken a toll on her, both mentally and emotionally. At least once or twice a week, she comes across bags left behind. Recently, she found a diaper bag with bottled formula and toddler shoes. “Just knowing there are children going through this is heartbreaking. I understand this is not an easy issue to solve. It’s super multifaceted, and there is a lot going on,” she exclaims, “but it is out of control!”

Sergeant Charles Poirier of the RCMP agrees. He says the Valleyfield and Champlain detachments, which cover the territory along the border from Dundee to Lac Memphremagog, are especially preoccupied by the situation. “It is very rare that there is not an interception every night,” he states. On average, officers covering the Champlain sector are finding between 50 and 70 people per week. “That means at least five, six, sometimes ten calls per night,” he explains.

Officers are even busier on the American side, where the Swanton sector of the U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) reports that agents are currently apprehending around 100 people per day. Poirier says the working relationship between the RCMP and the USBP has had to adapt, and the units now work closely together. “It’s a bit like cat-and-mouse, where if we arrive a few seconds or minutes too late and the passage was successful, we have to get information to the Americans quickly.”

Poirier admits the sudden spike in southbound movement following changes to the Safe Third Country agreement in March 2023 caught the RCMP off guard. At first it was largely people of Mexican origin who were crossing, but new U.S. visa requirements have made this more difficult.

“What we are seeing now are people from India who arrive by plane in Montreal or Toronto,” says Poirier. Within hours, they are dropped off near the border, sometimes by taxi or Uber drivers, often with Ontario licence plates. RCMP investigations have determined that people are being recruited in India by networks of smugglers who charge upwards of a few thousand dollars per person.

The RCMP is now working with taxi associations and Uber, to ensure drivers are aware of the dangers associated with this work. “If there is a tragedy, the driver will have to answer some questions,” says Poirier, who suggests drivers have a moral responsibility, and depending on their level of involvement, a legal responsibility as well.

 

Hemmingford resident Eugenie Officer says scenes of luggage abandoned by migrants attempting to cross into the US from her property are becoming all too common PHOTO Eugenie Officer

 

Poirier confirms the RCMP is also working to destabilize the networks, but they are especially agile, and the hot spots keep shifting. He says Canada’s legislative framework is also not helping. Customs and immigration laws allow the RCMP to detain, search bags, and question someone who enters Canada illegally, but in the case of individuals attempting to cross into the United States, there is very little that can be done.

Poirier explains that in most cases, the people they intercept in Canada have not committed an offence, even if it is very clear they intend to enter the U.S. illegally. “We have no choice but to let them go,” he says, noting this sometimes means officers will chase the same people several times in one night, because once an attempt to cross has been interrupted, the individuals will more than likely try again just down the road.

“It is not a question of capacity. We could have a thousand officers in the field, and it wouldn’t make any difference. It is really a question of the tools at our disposal,” admits Poirier.

Beyond collaborating with the USBP, Poirier says the RCMP also works closely with residents. “They are our eyes and ears,” he says. “But we also want them to feel safe and to not expect incidents will constantly take place on their property.”

Poirier asks that residents call 911 if they see anything out of the ordinary. “Don’t take it for granted that it is not an emergency,” he says, noting that while the border may seem nearby, disoriented migrants can walk up to 18 hours in circles. “There really is a need to intervene right away,” he insists.

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