FARGO, N.D. -- Seven Indian nationals accused of illegally entering the United States in an alleged human smuggling case that left four dead have been released pending deportation hearings in front of an immigration judge, federal authorities said Thursday.
Six of the migrants were placed under supervision and one was released for humanitarian purposes, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials said in a statement. All of them have been ordered to report to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, at a later date.
The seven migrants were part of a group of 11 people attempting to cross into the U.S. near the Minnesota-North Dakota border last week during a blizzard. The frozen bodies of four family members who became separated from the others were found just inside the Canadian border near Emerson, Manitoba, according to court documents. The victims included a baby and a teen.
Steve Shand, 47, of Deltona, Florida is charged in federal court in Minnesota with transportation of an undocumented immigrant. He has not been charged in the deaths. A federal magistrate judge released Shand without bond but ordered him to obey several conditions.
When Shand was arrested, he was driving a 15-passenger van with two of the Indian nationals inside. One of the five migrants who walked across the border told authorities they expected to be picked up by someone in the U.S. He said they had been walking for more than 11 hours. Two of the five were hospitalized for injuries from exposure to the cold.
Federal authorities suspect that the case is linked to a larger smuggling operation along the Canadian border. One Indian national told a Border Patrol investigator that he paid a “significant amount of money” to enter Canada under a fraudulently obtained student visa. He intended to live with his uncle in Chicago.
Doug Micko, Shand's public defender, did not immediately respond to a phone message seeking comment.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota, said the deaths illustrate that there's more work to be done to combat human smuggling and trafficking. She sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security secretary asking about plans to increase its law enforcement efforts.
“Like so many others, I was horrified and heartbroken to learn that a family of four froze to death in a blizzard at the Minnesota-Canada border last week,” Klobuchar wrote.
Customs and Border Patrol referred all further questions to ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations, which did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for an interview.