Almost three months after Bashir Yussuf watched Donald J. Trump win the presidential election, he made his way to Noyes, Minn., where he set off at night into the snow-filled woods and crawled across the unmarked border into Canada.
“I saw what was coming,” said Mr. Yussef, 28, who fled his home in Somalia in 2013 to make a circuitous, five-month voyage to San Diego, where he applied for asylum but was rejected. “I knew Trump was going to deport me.”
After a three-hour walk, much of it through deep drifts, Mr. Yussuf arrived in Emerson, a small farming town in sight of the snow-swept border with both North Dakota and Minnesota.
Emerson’s 700 inhabitants have long known “border hoppers,” often offering them lifts to the nearby Canadian Border Services Agency office. But they have never seen them coming in these numbers.
The morning before Mr. Yussuf arrived with another Somali last Sunday night, 19 other Africans had emerged on the Canadian side of the border, cold and hungry after walking much of the night across frozen farm fields. There were too many to fit into the small border office for processing, so the people of the town rushed to open the community hall, where the new arrivals could get warm, doze on sleeping mats and refuel on Nutella sandwiches, tea and coffee.
Noting a worrying trend, Emerson officials convened an emergency meeting on Thursday with the police and border agents to figure out a protocol for the next wave of arrivals — which they feared would be soon.
“The farmers are worried about what they’re going to find when the snow melts,” said Greg Janzen, the reeve, or chief elected executive, of the Emerson-Franklin municipality.
On Christmas Eve, two Ghanaians were picked up on the roadside north of town, some 10 hours after they had set off into a field near the border, sinking to their waists in snow. The temperature that morning was reported to be below zero, with windchill making it even worse. The men’s hands were so badly frostbitten that they lost almost all their fingers.
Over the past couple of years, a small number of people have been sneaking across the border at Manitoba from the United States and then filing for asylum, Canadian Border Service Agency statistics show. But since the fall, refugee workers in Winnipeg say, there has been a noticeable surge.
The Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, known locally as Welcome Place, typically serves 50 to 60 asylum seekers per year, said its executive director, Rita Chahal. “Since April, we’ve seen already 300,” she said.
While the government of Canada was unable to provide statistics on the number of people seeking refugee status who illegally enter the country, Sgt. Harold Pfleiderer of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said “there has been an increase in illegal migration in Quebec, Manitoba and British Columbia, with the largest increase being seen in Quebec.”
A loophole in the rules covering asylum seekers has led some to walk for as long as eight hours in the middle of the night, through wintry landscapes and biting prairie cold, before arriving in Emerson. While an agreement between Canada and the United States makes it impossible for them to simply present themselves at the border and claim asylum, those who make it into the country and then present themselves to border guards can do so.
Now, in light of the uncertainty and disruption created by President Trump’s executive order on immigration, refugee advocates and human rights groups in Canada are demanding that the government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suspend or cancel the refugee pact, which is known as the Safe Third Country agreement.
“We are essentially encouraging people to come across the border through irregular means,” said Sean Rehaag, a York University law professor who specializes in refugee and immigration law.
On Wednesday, the immigration and refugee clinical program at Harvard Law School issued a report stating that Mr. Trump’s executive orders on immigration made the United States “not a safe country of asylum” for people fleeing persecution and violence.
“When Canada sends someone back to the U.S., we are saying we have confidence the U.S. is going to protect them if they need protection. We don’t see how we can have confidence to say that in the current context,” said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council For Refugees, a nonprofit umbrella organization of 170 refugee advocacy groups.
Bashir Khan, a Winnipeg lawyer, has represented 125 refugees before the Immigration and Refugee Board over the past five years. That is on top of the 17 he is representing currently. [MORE]