Emerson-Franklin is a small Canadian town of about 2,400 people on the other side of the border from Minnesota. Over the past year more than 400 asylum seekers, most of whom are reportedly Somali, have risked rough terrain and frostbite to get there.
They often go to the Emerson Hotel or knock on a door, asking to use the phone so they can turn themselves in to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Mounties take them to the Canada Border Services Agency, where they are screened and transported to refugee resettlement services in Winnipeg.
Whether they are illegal immigrants or refugees cannot be determined until the very end of the process.
In Winnipeg, reporters have learned that the border crossers are fleeing Donald Trump, perceiving his executive order halting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries as a threat to eventually deport American Muslims. One Somali man from Minnesota told CTV News Winnipeg that he couldn’t stand the thought of going back to Somalia, where his father was murdered by al-Shabab.
Greg Janzen, a Emerson-Franklin councilman, says the crossings preceded Trump’s inauguration, but that the recent ban may have been what drove a group of 19 people across the border in a single day last weekend.
Overwhelmed, the Canada Border Services Agency asked Emerson-Franklin to hold the group in its town hall while they were processed one by one. Some townspeople volunteered to supervise the border crossers, who were each given mats to sleep on and were served nutella sandwiches with tea or coffee.
“We’ve been fortunate that of all these people who have crossed over illegally, we’ve had no incidents, no confrontations, which is fortunate,” says Janzen. “But as the numbers rise … there is a concern that with that many people, are we going to see more confrontation with these people and our locals? They’re concerned. Especially at two o’clock in the morning it’s kind of startling, especially if it’s someone you don’t know at the door.”
Janzen says he’s more confused than anything, because his perception of America is that it’s a free country, where the crossers may already have refugee status. The Mounties and immigration officials won’t give the town much explanation, he says, because of privacy and security.
“Well, your United States is a free country. I actually enjoy visiting out there in winter,” Janzen says. “You’ve got some nice beaches in Florida and California.”
The Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council is a refugee resettlement agency that helps asylum seekers. Executive director Rita Chahal says that for 70 years, the agency has seen on average 50 unsponsored crossers come through. But in the last year, there have been close to 300. The numbers began to escalate in the fall of 2016 and started to spike in early January, with as many as 40 people in one month. In the last seven days, there have been close to 30.
Many are Muslims or of Middle Eastern and African descent. They may have originally planned to seek refuge in America, but changed their plans at the last minute. Some may have been denied asylum in America and scheduled for deportation. Others have crossed all the way from Mexico, only to keep traveling to Canada.
The agency's resources are strained, but Canadians are happy to have the refugees, Chahal says.
"We don't question them about their motives or what's happened to them in the U.S.," Chahal says. "As a service agency we focus on the human aspect of this. We are governed by our charter rights and freedoms, and we adhere to that, helping people receive services."