Immigrants who were once desperate to get into the United States are now doing everything in their power to get out, risking it all to illegally cross the border again -- into Canada.
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In the first two months of this year, more than 2,000 people have crossed the U.S.-Canada border, an over 5,000-mile, largely unsecured and often icy obstacle. Spurred by the recent immigration orders and perceived risk of deportation, many trying to leave travel on a system of informal paths that have been dubbed by some as “Underground Railroads” to the Great White North.
One Somali refugee, who said his journey on this so-called “Underground Railroad” started in Minneapolis and ended after he crossed the U.S.-Canada border, said his trip was “very cold" and "dangerous.”
“Some of us, they get blood in their legs ... because they are walking eight hours or nine hours,” he said. “That was crazy.”
Under the hum of everyday life in the U.S., many refugees say they have a persistent fear.
“They fear the new rules that will capture them back home ... to take them to Somalia,” said Mohamed Mohoud, whose café in Minneapolis is the first stop for many on this “railroad” route.
Mohoud said he offers refugees fleeing north what he can -- food, money and a warning.
“I told them, ‘You already risked your life … you just became safe in USA’” he said. “But they don’t listen ...[I tell them] ‘Just wait, this is a free land, don’t leave.’”
Three blocks from Mohoud’s café, there’s a market that Omar Jamal said is another meeting point for refugees wanting to flee north.
“This is where Somalis come and do shopping … this is usually where they come looking for rides,” he said.
Rides mean rides to the U.S.-Canada border, which Jamal said come at steep prices ranging from $600 to $1,000 per person.
Jamal said he has received hundreds of calls from Somalis considering fleeing to Canada, which for many is an extension of a voyage that begins in their homeland, then extends to South Africa and South America, and then continues on to the U.S.
“Some people have lost their fingers and limbs due to frostbite,” Jamal said. “And they’re taking children with them. So basically, putting their life at risk.”
Marc Prokosch, an immigration attorney, says many of his clients go north against his counsel. He said he has never seen so many people wanting to cross into Canada before now.
“There is, in my view, no imminent threat to these individuals,” Prokosch said. “And so it's pretty dangerous for them to try to make the journey up to Canada in the middle of winter.”
Due to a stipulation, many immigrants must cross illegally into Canada to apply for asylum, Prokosch said.
“If they were to arrive at the border and present themselves to Canadian immigration they would not be able to apply for asylum because they had already applied for asylum in the United States,” he said.
This 400-mile path from Minneapolis to the U.S.-Canada border is just one of many frigid routes refugees have taken. About 1,500 miles east, there is a steady flow of crossers leaving New York state for Quebec, Canada. Many take a bus ride north, then a taxi close to the border, and then try to walk across the border.
On another section of the border, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol in North Dakota say dropping temperatures in winter means a potential for rescue operations on the American side of the border.
“This time of year it’s frostbite, hypothermia,” said Agent-in-Charge Eric Kuhn. “When you have wind chills of 35 to 50 below zero, your exposure time is measured in minutes.”
Kuhn pointed out the area on the North Dakota border where he and his fellow agents have noticed illegal crossers into Manitoba, Canada. This shuttered port of entry has become a key artery for foot traffic. The Royal Canadian mounted police said 183 people have been intercepted in Manitoba alone.
At the Emerson Hotel bar in Emerson, Manitoba, just over the border, manager Wayne Pfiel keeps an eye out for refugees coming across the border.
“They were cold. They were freezing, hungry,” he said. “I give them food, coffee and then I shelter them.”
Here, the people are generous, but there are growing concerns over Canada’s acceptance of refugees.
“I’m at an age where I’m close to retirement,” said one patron, Tom Parr. “And unfortunately, when they come here and apply for refugee status, they’re getting more than I do as a Canadian who has contributed to this country for 40 years.”
And Canadian welfare agencies are overwhelmed. Rita Chahal, who runs Welcome Place in Winnipeg, Manitoba, said the center has opened 140 files on refugees in the first two months of this year alone when they usually handle 50 to 60 cases per year.
“It’s become a regular situation where people are having to, we have to go and pick up families, people,” Chahal said. “This is the Salvation Army and this is a temporary shelter for people needing accommodation overnights often.”
The welcome center offers these refugees a basic room and a bed. The same Somali refugee who spoke to ABC News, whose journey to Canada started in Minneapolis, said the U.S. used to be a “good country” but now it’s “the worst country in the world.”
“I didn’t do nothing. I just fear my country, I just seek asylum,” he said. “Canada, they was welcoming, they give it to me good food. They give it to me a good house. They allowed me to apply in asylum.”
Chahal thinks “it’s very inherently Canadian” to be so welcoming to these refugees.
“We are a country built on the values of compassion and caring and acceptance and love and I think that’s what you’re seeing amongst Canadians and those reaching out,” she said.
For now, at least, the welcome center gives these refugees a chance to rest from a seemingly interminable journey.
“It means first and foremost, a resting place to start with,” Chahal said. “While it might be the end of one journey it is beginning of another one.”