Over the first weekend in April, U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested 20 people for entering the country illegally in Vermont, New Hampshire and New York.
Helping people cross the border illegally — or human smuggling — is something people take for granted on the southern border between the U.S. and Mexico. But it's also part of life on the northern border: Human smugglers and law enforcement are playing a cat-and-mouse game on the Vermont border.
Richard Ross is the Agent in Charge of the U.S. Border Patrol station in Newport, Vermont.
He's a native Vermonter who previously worked in borderland Texas. Ross says the volumes are smaller and often the profiles are different. But, he says, the human smuggling from Canada on the northern border is a constant.
"It absolutely is sophisticated and organized,” said Ross.
Ross runs one of eight stations in the border patrol’s Swanton Sector.
It covers Vermont, five counties in New York and three counties in New Hampshire. There's boundless tree cover within the sector, along with rivers and large lakes like Champlain and Memphremagog, with shoreline in both countries.
"If you have type of transnational criminal organization this area is very appealing,” Ross said.
A series of cases helps chart the recent trajectory of human smuggling on the Vermont border.
In October, three people were charged in federal court with allegedly orchestrating a 15-person human smuggling attempt that used a Vermont motel as a way station.
In November, two Americans seen circling an area near the border were charged with smuggling two Mexicans.
Two of the three cases unfolded beside the Haskell Free Library and Opera House in Derby Line, Vermont, which faces Stanstead, Quebec. Outside the library, a street with a simple marker and some flower pots marks the border. There's just enough room for a car to squeeze between the marker and the state of Vermont.
"We had two groups, that happened to be Romanian, drive vehicles,” said Ross. “So they came here, over the sidewalk, came up here up here took a left and I-91 is about a minute away,” his hand retraced the direction of one of the cars.
The border patrol's work on the Canada border is a blend of art and science, looking at geography, at who might exploit a given part of the border or deportation orders in Canada that might spur more human smuggling into Vermont.
Unlike the southern border which can often have predictable seasonal ebbs and flows, it is difficult to anticipate numbers on the northern border.
Last year, agents in the Swanton Sector arrested 165 people trying to enter the U.S. illegally. That’s a 22 percent decline over 2016 when 214 people were caught. But Border Patrol intelligence agent Rob Dandrow says business is still good for human smugglers.
“These organizations can sometimes charge individuals anywhere from two to even upwards of $25,000- $30,000,” explained Dandrow.
The cost in Mexico is far less, between $3,000 to $8,000 per person. Dandrow says that intelligence gathering shows human smuggling operations need accomplices on both sides of the border.
"They will usually recruit drivers and foot guides whether it be in the U.S. and Canada, usually both countries, to actually do the physical smuggling themselves,” Dandrow explained.
Agent Ross says they also use scouts.
"We'd be foolish to think that we're running our operations and they weren't running any against us to see where they could cross and when they could cross,” said Ross.
Though privacy advocates are opposed, Canada has begun sharing data with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on American citizens who cross into Canada largely in the name of border security.
It is expected that DHS will eventually reciprocate by sharing information on Canadians who cross into the U.S. Legislation in Canada would also establish exit controls. Without them, the government says it has no reliable way of knowing if visitors ever leave the country.
David Berger is an immigration attorney who formerly served for 16 years in Canada's Parliament. He says that eventually, people will be obligated to swipe their passport as they exit Canada.
"We will have a record of when they leave the country,” Berger explained. “We've never had that before. And we will presumably share that information with the United States."
In Montreal, McGill University political scientist Philip Oxhorn says cross-border discussions on border issues can result in policy change.
"One of the reasons that Canada imposed visa requirements on Mexicans a few years ago was for that,” he said referring to a decision by the previous Conservative government in 2009. “The U.S. was saying it's too easy for Mexicans to come to Canada and go south through the Canadian border, so please impose the visa."
That visa requirement has been been lifted by the current ruling Liberal government. There's been a rise in asylum applications by Mexicans to stay in Canada. Canada typically rejects 50 percent of applications from Mexicans.
After the presidential election of November 2016, a number of people began entering Canada illegally from the United States.
Back in Vermont, Border Patrol Agent Richard Ross says agents are expecting a boomerang.
"Some of those folks have realized that they're not going to be allowed to stay in Canada,” said Ross, “so we are seeing that traffic come back to us."
Canada has announced that it will allow a million immigrants into the country between now and 2020. Not all will end up staying permanently. Those who guard the northern border say that almost certainly means some of them will take their chances with human smugglers to try to enter the U.S.