Immigrants cross thinly patrolled New York border 261-mile frontier with Canada watched by only 60 U.S. agents

October 02, 1997|By ALBANY TIMES UNION

CHURUBUSCO, N.Y. - Holsteins grazed in fields and grasshoppers sprang from the roadside as Reyad, a 27-year-old man from Bangladesh, made his move.

His new hiking boots, tied with bright yellow laces, helped propel him across a field, over the border and toward a road. With $42 stuffed in his new blue jeans and a bag filled with clothes slung over his shoulder, Reyad might have thought he was home free.

Not quite. Reyad had company. A U.S. Customs agent was sprinting across the field. And within minutes, Reyad was handcuffed, facing a one-way trip back to Bangladesh.

Immigrants stream south

On this slice of the U.S.-Canadian border, where the rivers flow north, the undocumented immigrants stream south, coming from Bangladesh and Brazil, from Taiwan and Turkey. They target the 261-mile stretch between Watertown, N.Y., and Maine - a sector monitored by only 60 border patrol agents. Emigres find it easier to enter Canada than the United States, and once there, some try to cross the border illegally, U.S. officials say.

The rolling farmland here is nothing like the nation's southern border with Mexico: The U.S. Border Patrol hauled in 1.5 million undocumented immigrants along the Mexican border in the year ending Sept. 30, 1996, compared with 11,700 along the Canadian border.

But while there are 6,067 agents assigned to southern sectors, there are only 405 for all the northern sectors. And those on the northern front say they face more sophisticated forms of smuggling, complications posed by an American Indian reservation straddling the border and a constantly shifting array of illicit trade.

The number of undocumented immigrants apprehended after passing through the St. Regis Mohawk Indian Reservation jumped from 67 in fiscal 1994 to 299 in fiscal 1996.

'Just another commodity'

"It's just another commodity," said Douglas A. Smoke, a Mohawk chief. "After the cigarettes went out of style, the next most lucrative commodity was people, unfortunately."

A couple of years ago, smugglers were shipping large amounts of contraband cigarettes through the reservation to the Canadian black market, authorities say. But Canada began cutting its tobacco taxes in 1994, taking much of the profit out of that trade. So smugglers began looking for a new product. They turned to Persian rugs and to the outlawed refrigerant Freon, which is used primarily in automobiles. Eventually, they turned to people.

"Smugglers try to capitalize on price differentials, whatever the product - from frozen chicken to the whole gamut," Smoke said.

By 1996, it became apparent that the money was in human

smuggling. But the cost could be steep. That year a boat believed to have been used for smuggling capsized in the St. Lawrence River, leaving a Pakistani woman dead and a man presumed dead.

Now, nearly one year later, the flow of smuggled immigrants appears to be slowing: Three-quarters of the way through the 1997 fiscal year, 98 undocumented immigrants had been nabbed coming from the reservation, which the Indians call Akwesasne.

"It has slowed down, but it hasn't stopped," said Ed Duda, assistant chief of the U.S. Border Patrol sector that includes northern New York.

Rather, some of the smuggling through the reservation has shifted to other parts of the border, Duda said. And he noted that the smuggling of undocumented immigrants has never been restricted to Akwesasne.

U.S. Attorney Thomas J. Maroney said some jokingly refer to Derby Line, Vt., as "Pakistani Boulevard" because of the number of undocumented immigrants that wander into the rural border town.

"The point is that there is a lot of potential for alien smuggling along the northern border - and not just in Akwesasne," Maroney said.

But the 28,000-acre reservation is well suited for smuggling. It straddles both the border and the St. Lawrence River, and despite a U.S. Supreme Court decision to the contrary, Indians have long argued that the land is sovereign.

For the most part, American Indians do not organize the smuggling rings; but some allegedly act as middlemen, taking immigrants by boat across the river, said Ben P. DeLuca, agent-in-charge at the Border Patrol station in Champlain.

Indian view

Smoke, one of five legislators on the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council, said many on the reservation look down on the smuggling of undocumented immigrants. "It's making money off other people's misfortune," he said.

Also, Smoke said he worries about the "unsavory" people that the smuggling might be introducing to the community. DeLuca said that according to intelligence reports, some of those smuggled across the border are suspected terrorists or hit men.

Smoke and DeLuca agreed that a very small percentage of people on the reservation are involved in such smuggling. But as long as there is money to be made, there will be people drawn to smuggling. "The economic makeup of this community is pretty depressed right now," Smoke said. "There's high unemployment and people need to pay bills."

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