Florida man arrested for human smuggling may be connected to larger operation, court docs say
Not much is known about the individuals, aside from authorities believing they are a family of Indian nationals, and part of a larger group apprehended in northern Minnesota, about 6 miles east of Pembina.
GRAND FORKS — Canadian authorities continue to investigate the deaths of four people, including a baby, who were found just short of crossing into the United States on Wednesday, Jan. 19.
Not much is known about them, aside from authorities believing they are a family of Indian nationals. They were believed to be part of a larger group of people who were apprehended in northern Minnesota, about 6 miles east of Pembina. The investigation is ongoing, and one man, Steve Shand, is in custody at the Grand Forks County Correctional Center on a single charge of human smuggling. Shand is considered a federal prisoner and may be removed to another location by U.S. Marshals.
Shand's next court appearance is Monday, Jan. 24.
An official with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was not able to release more information on Friday except to say officers are continuing to investigate the deaths.
“There's lots of behind-the-scenes stuff going on with us and the U.S. and we're still trying to confirm identities, to see how everything all works together,” a representative of the RCMP said.
David Marcus, an agent with the U.S.Border Patrol in the Grand Forks sector, said some of the detained Indian nationals were able to speak English, but agents had to use an interpreter service for the others.
Marcus said arrests of people coming across the border illegally are fairly consistent throughout the year, and do not change necessarily because of the seasons. In fiscal year 2018, the Border Patrol reported 461 arrests. There were 412 arrests in 2019. In 2020, there were 227 arrests. According to Marcus, there are about 200 agents in all of the Grand Forks sector. Agents in Pembina cover 99 miles of border.
According to an affidavit by John Stanley, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, Shand is suspected of being involved with a larger human smuggling operation. The affidavit was filed with the U.S. District Court in Minnesota, on Jan. 20.
Shand, the document indicates, after having been informed of his rights, declined to speak with investigators in the incident that left the four people frozen to death on Wednesday and led to the apprehension of seven other Indian nationals. Along with the four deaths on the Canadian side of the border, two had to go to a hospital for cold weather-related injuries, and one of them, a woman, may need to have part of her hand amputated.
According to the affidavit, two incidents of people walking across the border and being picked up by a vehicle were reported by U.S. Border Patrol agents on Dec. 12 and 22. In the earlier incident, agents said they found a backpack with a price tag showing the price in Rupees, the currency in India.
Receipts found in Shand’s rented vehicle on Wednesday also indicate he may have come to the region earlier this month, including a receipt dated Jan. 11 for the La Quinta Hotel in Grand Forks.
“The investigation into the death of the four individuals in Canada is ongoing along with an investigation into a larger human smuggling operation, of which Shand is suspected of being a part,” reads a portion of Stanley’s affidavit.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the incident “mind blowing” and said the four people who froze to death were “victims of human traffickers.”
Shand is charged with human smuggling, not human trafficking, as the two crimes are different, but Vena Iyer, the executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, said they can quickly become one and the same should the smuggler turn on the people they are escorting into the country.
“It's a very blurry line between the two because oftentimes it may seem like it's smuggling, (but) it becomes trafficking, and that can happen very quickly,” she said.
Iyer is the executive director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, a nonprofit legal service. Her organization provides legal services to immigrants, as well as education about immigration and advocates for immigration reform. The organization is based in St. Paul, but has offices in Austin, Moorhead and Worthington.
Human trafficking occurs when a person is forcibly brought into the country and then exploited either for their labor or for sexual purposes. Smuggling happens when a person is brought into the country illegally, then not forced to work. But on those dangerous journeys, things can change, and the smuggler can become the trafficker.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recognizes the same phenomena. ICE is the lead agency working to counter trafficking and smuggling.
Whether smuggled or trafficked into the country, people often end up in the fringes of society, living in shadow or even in plain sight, Iyer said. People who enter the country illegally with the intention to stay have very few legal options. They can apply for asylum, if they can demonstrate they fled persecution in their home country. A family member already in the country legally may also be able to sponsor a visa application, she said. Mostly, they just end up working and raising their families without a pathway to a legal status.
People believing they have witnessed human trafficking or smuggling can call U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations at 1-202-312-9746, or 1-800-BE-ALERT.