Woman's death alarms Canadians over more refugees crossing MN border

When the body of Mavis Otuteye was found in a ditch roughly a mile from the Canadian border, officials said it's the type of tragedy they expect to see more and more.

Rita Chahal runs the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, the largest refugee settlement organization in Manitoba. Most years, she said, her organization worked with about 60 asylum seekers who crossed the border from the U.S.

"Since January alone, we've seen almost 600 people crossing the border," she said. "That's just the ones who come to our door."

Years ago, those 60 people were mostly single men. Now, she said, young families are coming across, which makes the trip more risky. Last December, two refugees from Ghana lost their fingers to frostbite.

Kittson County officials say Otuteye was likely walking to enter Canada. That would make Otuteye the first person Chahal knows of who died on the crossing.

Otuteye, a 57-year-old woman from Ghana, was found near the tiny border town of Noyes Minn. — an area that has become a common pathway for refugees seeking asylum.

Kwao Amegashie, a Minneapolis immigration lawyer and former president of the Ghanaian Association of Minnesota, said the Trump administration's vow to crack down on immigration has a led to asylum seekers heading for Canada.

"The change in the political tone has made people nervous about their chances of success," he said. "The next best option is to find a country where their claims will be heard fairly."

But refugees can't just get in a car and drive across the Canadian border. That's because the U.S. and Canada have a Safe Third Country agreement in which refugees are required to apply for asylum in the first country they land, Amegashie said.

If refugees land in the U.S. then try to enter Canada through a conventional port of entry, they'd be turned away.

A lot of them just find a rural section of border and start walking. Once they're in Canada, most can stay while applying for asylum.

Greg Janzen is one of a group of Canadian politicians and refugee advocates calling for change to the immigration system. He's the reeve, or chief elected executive, of the Emerson Franklin municipality — just north of the border where Otuteye was found.

He said Canada should change its agreement with the U.S. to allow refugees to claim asylum at legal ports of entry.

"Then they wouldn't have to go through the fields and woods at night, in the cold," he said. "We wouldn't have to go out looking for them, and no one would get hurt."

He said the recent death has intensified a long-standing debate, but it's not clear if anything will change.

Correction (June 1, 2017): The Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council is the largest refugee resettlement organization in Manitoba. An earlier version of this story was unclear on that point, and misstated the group's official name. The story has been updated.

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