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Longtime refugee loophole under microscope after family freezes to death at US-Canada border

One Canadian border expert says the 17-year-old law is a "job creation program for smugglers."

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35-year-old Jagdish Patel, his 33-year-old wife Vaishali, and their children, 12-year-old Vihanngi and 3-year-old Dharmik.
Photo courtesy of Vibes of India
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Listen to reporters Matt Henson and Adam Kurtz talk about their pursuit of this story, what they know and what they are still trying to find out.

EMERSON, Manitoba — They died chasing the American Dream. A newspaper in New Delhi called Vibes of India has identified the family found dead just a few feet from the U.S.-Canada border near Emerson, Manitoba, as the Patel family from Gujarati, India.

The husband and wife were in their mid-30s. The children were 12 and 3 years old.

The newspaper says they were not poverty-stricken. Jagdish, the father, was a teacher.

The family was part of an 11-member group of Indian nationals trying to cross the border in 30-below temperatures during a blizzard.

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Police say they had been wandering farm fields for 11 hours.

Fifty-seven-year-old Steven Shand, of Florida, is charged with human smuggling in federal court in the U.S. in connection to the situation.

He has bailed out of jail and is expected to face charges in Canada, too.

The newspaper reports the Patel family hired an agent to get them to America without valid visas.

They reportedly saved for decades and paid tens of thousands of dollars.

The tragedy is shining a light on the Safe Third Country Agreement between the U.S. and Canada that's been in place since 2004.

The goal was to better manage the flow of refugees between the two countries.

Even though a major loophole was exposed almost immediately, it has never been closed.

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"This case will be a tragic illustration of what the consequences can be," said Dr. Julie Young, an associate professor at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, and part of the Canada Research Chair (Tier 2) in Critical Border Studies.

According to the law, if someone wants to seek refugee status in the U.S. or Canada and tries to do so at an official border crossing, they will be sent back.

However, if they make it across the border illegally and report to a refugee official, they can stay.

"So, essentially, it pushed people away from these more official border crossings and pushed them into the arms of smugglers," Young said, referring to it as a "job creation program for smugglers."

Since jumping the border is done secretly, there are no real numbers of how often it occurs.

It is assumed more people who illegally cross the border head into Canada.

People who seek the help of smugglers often have money to pay the steep price, somewhere between a few thousand dollars to $100,000.

Young speculated this trip was on the pricier side given it included two children, and a total of 11 people were traveling together.

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It's unclear if they are all related and why they were trying to sneak across the border.

"At a global level, migration is often a family strategy — an extended family strategy," Young said. "Often a larger family unit will pool their resources, and they might pick an individual, or maybe a small family unit, to go abroad to work and then send money home to support family members."

The price includes a lot more than cash.

"Often people put up property as collateral," Young said. "They might put up homes or businesses or land as collateral to pay smugglers and then arrive and hope that on the other side they can pay off that debt and reclaim their property, but often it's lost because people pay so much money that they remain indebted on this side. ... It takes many years to pay off, or you might never pay it off."

She said there are reports that quiet discussions between the U.S. and Canada about the Safe Third Country Agreement were ongoing prior to the tragedy.

The Supreme Court in Canada was also going to review whether the law is constitutional, she said.

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