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A first-hand account of being caught up in NH’s ‘border crisis’

On Route 3 in Stewartstown, N.H., a sign informs motorists about the Canadian customs at the nearby international.
Dan Tuohy
On Route 3 in Stewartstown, N.H., a sign informs motorists about a Canadian customs checkpoint at the international border.

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New Hampshire’s border with Canada is heavily forested and sparsely populated. There are relatively few roads in the region and only one official crossing point. Unlike the country’s southern border with Mexico, there’s little commerce or daily traffic across the border. And yet in recent months, this 58-mile stretch of land has become a focal point for state and national politicians.

Law enforcement officials say there’s a surge in migrants crossing from Canada into the state, justifying increased government spending and law enforcement patrols. In October, Gov. Chris Sununu announced that $1.4 million set aside in the state budget would go to covering overtime shifts for state and local police and purchase additional equipment, though officials haven’t said what that may include.

That spending comes despite any state-specific data on migrant crossings from Canada to New Hampshire. Immigration advocates have called the plan a political stunt, and Canadian law enforcement are also rejecting claims that migrants are coming across New Hampshire’s border in large numbers.

At the same time, at least one person who did cross illegally into New Hampshire told NHPR that it was a straightforward process, until she was caught, detained and deported.

What numbers are available?

New Hampshire is patrolled by agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Swanton Sector, which also enforces immigration laws in New York and Vermont. In February, the agency issued a press release with data showing a sizable increase in encounters with migrants in the region. More people were arrested in January of this year — 367 — than the 12 previous Januaries combined, according to Border Patrol.
That data, however, includes encounters and arrests for the entire area patrolled by the Swanton Sector – including much longer stretches of the border in Vermont and upstate New York. There has been no information yet released on suspected crossings solely into New Hampshire, prompting a lawsuit by the ACLU and repeated calls by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen to release state-specific data.

This year, there have been two high profile arrests of small groups of people who were caught in New Hampshire without legal paperwork. The first, in July, spurred a series of visits by Democrat and Republican politicians to the Northern Border.

In September, U.S. Border Patrol agents intercepted a second car. The driver is facing ongoing criminal charges for his role in the alleged smuggling operation, and four migrants from Mexico were taken into custody, including a 39-year-old woman who was willing to share her story with NHPR.

A “calm” crossing after lies from smugglers

Mariposa, 39, lived in a rural part of Mexico with her partner and three children. (NHPR is using a nickname, at her request, as she fears retaliation for sharing details of her journey across the border.) She worked picking lemons and other crops, making at most $12 a day for a 12-hour shift. Her partner worked at a local police precinct.

But cartel influence and violence was inescapable, Mariposa said. Her partner felt pressured to hide things or stay silent, so he quit and joined her picking crops.

The family’s financial situation was precarious. Then Mariposa’s partner came down with a severe case of COVID-19, and needed oxygen. But buying those tanks fell on Mariposa.

Mariposa said she spent almost $200 for each tank. For a year and a half, she was the family’s sole breadwinner. She said they had to sell all their animals and property to pay for her partner’s treatment and her daughter’s school costs. When he finally recovered, a local smuggler offered them a way to cover their mounting debts.

Mariposa said the smuggler described Canada as a safe place where many immigrants are able to work for a few months, earn enough money to get back on their feet, and come back to Mexico. He said he could arrange jobs and housing for them in Toronto. It’s legal to fly from Mexico to Canada, and be there for 90 days or less as a tourist. Each of them paid the smuggler $3,400 for the trip and arrived in Toronto in July.

Their first night, they stayed at a house with other migrants. But the landlord, who told them he had nothing to do with the smuggling operation, said he had no jobs for them and that they had been the victims of a scam.

For two months, Mariposa and her husband tried to get work in Toronto. She said they could only get hired for a few days, and jobs were usually two hours away from where they were staying. She said they got a job at a packaging factory, but after just a few days they were told other immigrants would take their places.

Mariposa said their landlord then offered to help them cross to the U.S., where they hoped to connect with friends and family in the New York area.

After borrowing another $6,000 Canadian dollars, the couple took a bus in early September to Montreal. After departing they – along with two other people they didn’t know – were picked up by a smuggler and driven to a remote section of Quebec.

In the car, Mariposa said she opened up her phone’s GPS to follow the route and saw the U.S. border was close to the road. The driver then told the four migrants to put their phones in airplane mode and pay him. She said she was expecting to get instructions of where to cross but the driver just told them to get out of the car and run. Disoriented, Mariposa and her partner started the crossing. About five minutes later, she estimated, and they were in the United States.

“I was calm,” she said through a translator. The smuggler had told the group crossing was easy and risk-free.

Court records don’t make clear exactly where Mariposa crossed the border – in Vermont or in New Hampshire – but after waiting overnight in some woods, they were picked up by another smuggler on the U.S. side of the border. Almost immediately, she says, they were pulled over by Border Patrol in New Hampshire.

The driver, she said, told them they had the option to run. The couple made the quick decision to stay. The only thing that went through to her mind was they were powerless and would have to go back.

After being detained, Mariposa would then be held for several weeks, including at the Merrimack County jail, where she said she was provided limited information about her case and given no way to communicate with her partner. She was ultimately released, in late September, and then deported.

Now, she’s back in a larger city in Mexico where she and her partner have been applying for jobs, but haven’t yet been hired. Mariposa, her partner and their three children are living with friends, as she struggles to repay her debts.

Still, she said she doesn’t regret trying to enter the country.

“We wanted to achieve the American dream, but we weren't lucky,” she said. “We didn't want to cause any harm. We just wanted to work two or three years and then return. It was only about working.”

The reality on the ground

While Mariposa and approximately 14 other people have been caught trying to enter the United States through or near New Hampshire in recent months in publicized cases, a lack of detailed data leaves the scale of the problem unclear.

But Canadian law enforcement told NHPR that the state is not a popular location for illegal entry into the U.S.

“Your specific area isn't right now a hotspot, at least not from what our criminal intelligence and our patrol officers are saying,” Sgt. Charles Poirer with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said last month.

Poirer noted the entire Northeast is inhospitable for migrant crossings, especially in the winter. There have been deaths from people freezing in the woods or drowning in rivers. Canadian Mounties and Border Patrol agents have had to do rescues in deep snow to assist people who weren't prepared for the weather.

Still, getting hard data is a priority for both the ACLU of New Hampshire, which has sued the government after its Freedom of Information Act request was denied, and for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.

On Wednesday, during a hearing on Capitol Hill, Shaheen called on the Department of Homeland Security to release numbers on migrant crossings in New Hampshire.

“We need accurate information so that we can know how to address law enforcement issues, communication issues at our northern border, just as we do at the southern border,” said Shaheen.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told Shaheen he is aware of the issue, and that he was committed to working on her request.

“I am looking into that with my colleagues, and I know that you have asked for this information a number of times, and I commit to working with you on that,” he said.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
Gabriela Lozada is a Report for America corps member. Her focus is on Latinx community with original reporting done in Spanish for ¿Qué hay de Nuevo NH?.
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