Pakistanis in Canada brave Niagara Falls for America
NIAGARA FALLS: The small blowup raft held nine afloat on the cold Niagara River a scant two kilometres from where the current begins its zealous rush over Niagara Falls at a place marked the “Point of No Return.”
Into the pre-dawn blackness sailed a Pakistani father, his pregnant wife and her 1- and 3-year-old children, another Pakistani, three adults from India and the Canadian man allegedly hired to deliver them to America, an inviting kilometre across the river. At 4:15am on June 5, the overburdened raft, its trolling motor working hard in the current and water sloshing at its passengers’ feet, bobbed to the brushy banks of Grand Island, between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. The passengers climbed onto shore and crouched behind a bush to wait for their ride.
Border Patrol agents had watched it all and quickly had the group in custody.
“I have no allegiance to those people and I’ll tell you everything,” the raft’s pilot, identified as Nathaniel Richardson, told agents, according to court documents.
While the nation’s southern boundary is the gateway for most illegal immigrants, who die by the hundreds each year in the desert’s blistering heat, agents up north are kept busy as well by no less risky attempts.
The gray raft, with its 660-pound capacity and small motor wired to a car battery, was sturdier than what others have used to secret themselves into the country via the waters above and below the famous Falls. But “I would never be on the Niagara River on it. Maybe my pool,” said Assistant Chief Patrol Agent Mike Przbyl.
On the 6,436-kilometre northern border, the enemy is not heat but often unforgiving cold. Here, it is also the scenic river’s deceiving strength and its inviting bridges, with names like Peace and Rainbow, that can be most unwelcoming.
In recent years, a Peruvian woman died after falling under the wheels of the freight train she had ridden across a bridge. A South African woman inadvertently smothered her baby while crouching in the back of a car to avoid detection at an inspection booth. A 36-year-old man from Zimbabwe died after becoming entangled in the undercarriage of a bus he had sneaked aboard. There have been broken backs from falls, lost limbs under trains and carbon monoxide poisonings from rides spent tucked up in the underside of trucks. As of June 10, 5,285 people who cross illegally were arrested at the northern border since the beginning of the fiscal year Oct. 1, compared to 6,380 in the same period a year before, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. During the same period, there were 813,000 arrests at the half-as-long Southwestern border, compared to 622,000 a year earlier, the agency said.
While the government has traditionally concentrated most of its border resources to the Southwest, where 10,000 Border Patrol agents are assigned, the northern boundary, with its vast stretches of rugged wilderness, has gotten increasing attention since the 2001 terrorist attacks The number of agents has tripled to 1,000 and there has been an influx of boats, aircraft and surveillance technology. US and Canadian authorities have stepped up information sharing and the Integrated Border Enforcement Team comprising officers from more than a dozen agencies, including the Coast Guard and Royal Canadian Mounted Police, meets regularly. An 800 number that works on both sides of the border encourages residents to report suspicious activity.
Often, those trying to sneak into the country are not aware of the risks when they pay smugglers anywhere from a few hundred dollars to $60,000 for passage, said Ed Duda, deputy chief patrol agent at the Border Patrol in Buffalo. A few years back, a group of Chinese men and women paid as much as $40,000 each for the chance to crawl a quarter of a mile (a half kilometer) in the dark across the upper, railroad deck of the two-tier Whirlpool Rapids Bridge 245 feet (73.5 meters) above the Niagara Gorge. The Niagara River yields about two bodies a month. Many of them are suicides from Niagara Falls, but not all. In April, the body of a man was found on the beach at Fort Niagara State Park, his head and shoulders driven into the sand by the current. His inflatable raft washed up alongside him.
Another man was rescued from the upper river in a pool ring rigged with two fins made of duct tape, presumably to help steer, Duda recalled.
While the border sees its share of attempted drug smuggling — like the man videotaped balancing 50 pounds (22.5 kilograms) of hydroponic marijuana on his back while walking the supports of a bridge like a balance beam — most are simply seeking the American dream, authorities say. “It’s economic reasons more than anything else,” said Rolando Velasquez, a Buffalo immigration attorney. “Just coming into the United States, for them, is a better opportunity. They understand that, compared to a lot of their home countries, if you just work hard in the United States you can get ahead.” Duda said there is no common profile. Typically, more than 100 nationalities are represented among the arrests he sees each year. “There are 70-year-old grandmothers, months-old babies and everyone in between,” he said. “It usually falls into they’ve tried and failed to get a visa to come into the United States, or they know that the waiting time to get a visa will take forever,” Velasquez said.
Most of the group of nine arrested from the raft in June were quickly deported after pleading guilty to a minor offense, said Timothy Hoover, the federal public defender assigned to the case. The mother and her children were released temporarily for humanitarian reasons, but the father was sent back to Pakistan. An immigration hearing against the mother was planned for July 21.
Richardson, the pilot of the raft, is still in U.S. custody after pleading innocent to smuggling and harboring aliens, illegal entry and concealment of facts _ charges that could bring him a maximum of 10 years in prison, if convicted. A preliminary hearing is set for July 28. Velasquez, who worked for the Immigration and Naturalization Service before it became part of Homeland Security, said the government has taken a noticeably tougher stance on illegal immigrants since the Sept. 11 attacks.
“They are not as understanding as they used to be,” he said, “and not as willing as they used to be to try to allow people to obtain immigration benefits.” Agents say that is because it is often not clear who poses a threat. They take a particularly hard stance against smugglers, who are interested in little more than getting paid. Richardson told agents a man he met at a party the night before the clandestine trip offered him $300. He said he was to collect once he returned in the raft to Canada. “They don’t know who they’re bringing across,” said Duda. “The light’s got to come on: ‘Hey, wait a minute, I might be doing this for $300 or $400 but I potentially could become a traitor to both countries by bringing a terrorist across.”’
The agents who spotted the raft were on routine foot patrol. Also in the agency’s arsenal are powerful video cameras that allow agents to monitor the border on a bank of screens at headquarters, as well as patrol boats, a helicopter and other aircraft. Lately, new gamma-ray machines that essentially X-ray trains crossing the border have been working overtime in the Buffalo sector, finding dozens of people huddled in box cars. The smugglers, too, have taken advantage of technology, particularly cell phones and two-way radios that allow them to avoid agents and arrange rides before landing. “As the current is bringing them across the river in their little raft, they’re actually calling cabs,” said Duda. “It’s unbelievable.” ap