NOYES, Minn. — Chad Cosley tracks them as if they were deer.
He looks for footprints and frequently checks his network of trail cameras, which had been documenting wildlife along the U.S.-Canada border but now also capture would-be refugees fleeing the United States under President Trump.
"I was up there hunting just on November 4, and we had fresh snow," said Cosley, 45, who owns a parcel delivery service. "The following morning, we had four sets of footprints walking all the way up to the border with Canada, and there was a glove laying there on the ground — brand new, with perfume on it — so it was definitely a gal."
Since the start of the year, more than 1,000 people have made similar journeys through this tiny community in far northwestern Minnesota in an attempt to enter Canada by avoiding official border crossings, part of a nationwide surge as Trump advances his campaign pledge to make life uninviting for undocumented immigrants and some aspiring refugees. The exodus, also playing out in border towns in the Northeast that lead to Quebec and Ontario, is rattling local officials on both sides of the border who are now angry about being shoved onto the front lines of America's divisive immigration debate.
A Ghanaian woman’s body was found in a ditch near this small Minnesota town in May. She was an asylum seeker who succumbed to hypothermia while trying to cross the border. Residents fear there will be calamities in coming months as travelers encounter winter here, when a frigid northwestern wind scours barren fields separating Minnesota from Canada’s Manitoba province, making the traverse through blizzards and across frozen swamps a harrowing and life-threatening trip.
The concern has intensified, with county officials publicly calling on the Trump administration and Canada to waive a policy that prevents would-be refugees from passing through official border crossings. That plea has been met with silence.
Although rural Minnesota overwhelmingly supported Trump in last year’s election, some residents are troubled by his hard-line immigration policies, given the impact on their towns.
“For us, it’s a shocker to see these people wandering around,” said Leroy Clow, 73, a retired farmer and electrician. “It’s nice-dressed families — like they could be your neighbor — but they are scared and don’t know what else to do.”
According to the Canadian government, 9,335 people made asylum claims at land ports of entry between January and October, including those picked up after crossing the border from the United States at unauthorized locations. That is more than double the average of annual claims made from 2011 through 2016.
Counting asylum requests at airports, marine terminals and immigration offices, the Canadian government processed more than 41,000 applications this year through Oct. 31, nearly double the total processed in all of 2016.
The influx overwhelmed Canadian immigration authorities, who scrambled to open temporary shelters during the summer, including briefly converting part of Montreal's Olympic Stadium into temporary housing.
By hiking through rural communities, the migrants to Canada are largely bypassing a 2002 agreement between the United States and Canada that was designed to manage movement between the countries.
The Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement requires migrants to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, unless they are minors or have family ties at their next destination. The agreement means those who try to cross from the United States into Canada at official border posts are turned away; a loophole permits asylum claims to be made by individuals who enter Canada covertly.
The journey to Canada
For many migrants fleeing the Midwest, the fields here in Kittson County, Minn., have become the favored entry into Canada. Just west of the county line, Interstate 29 in North Dakota leads to an official border crossing.
After arriving by car from cities across the Midwest, asylum seekers drive on the highway to the last exit before the Canadian border, Pembina, N.D.
From there, some follow the twisting Red River on foot about five miles north into Canada. Others wander through Kittson County farms and marshes until they arrive near St. Vincent, which has a population of just 64, or here in Noyes.
Noyes has a railroad yard but is largely abandoned. There are just three inhabited houses — two of which are owned by one family, according to local residents. But the town abuts Emerson, Canada, once a bustling entryway to the Canadian frontier but now home to just 700 residents.
Crossing the border illegally here is perilous, especially at night and during the winter. If migrants do not align their planned route to lead directly into Emerson, a city of just eight square miles, they could wander for days in vast, desolate stretches of the Canadian prairie, authorities said.
The Ghanaian woman who died near Noyes this year apparently became disoriented in a field and stumbled into a drainage ditch, according to the Kittson County Sheriff's Office. The 57-year-old woman had been living illegally in the United States and was trying to reunite with relatives in Toronto, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported.
In December 2016, a truck driver in Manitoba province found two men from Ghana wandering along a highway and suffering from frostbite. The men, each of whom had to have several fingers amputated, told Canadian media that their U.S. visas had expired and that they feared the Trump presidency.
Doug Johnston, a council member and firefighter in the combined Canadian municipality of Emerson-Franklin, said local rescue squads now are called out several times a month after receiving emergency calls from lost or disoriented asylum seekers.
“It seems the worse the weather, the more people we can get,” said Johnston, noting that temperatures can drop to minus-20 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. “They are calling 911, but it can get so cold their phones go dead.”
He said that families sometimes become separated as they cross the border.
“We are not always finding them together, but we seem to eventually catch up and find them,” Johnston said, pausing to look out over a snowy field extending beyond the line of sight. “At least to my knowledge.”
Many of those fleeing to Canada are Africans or Haitians, according to local officials.
The outflow of Haitians began late last year, when community concerns first surfaced that Trump was going to rescind temporary residency permits issued in the wake of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.
The Department of Homeland Security this month finalized the policy change ending temporary protected status for an estimated 60,000 Haitians but set an 18-month window for them to depart voluntarily.
Temporary protected status for more than 370,000 people from Honduras, Nepal, El Salvador, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen remains in place, although the Department of Homeland Security has signaled that those groups’ protected status is under aggressive review. Temporary protection for 263,000 citizens of El Salvador could expire as soon as March.
U.S. and Canadian officials say the rate of asylum seekers crossing the border into Canada appears to have slowed in November and so far this month. But local officials in this sparsely populated area and activists from immigrant-heavy communities say they fear the slowdown might be temporary.
Abdullah Kiatamba, executive director of African Immigrant Services in suburban Minneapolis, said such worries are well founded as U.S. policy shifts.
“A lot of people are concerned and think that it’s better in Canada, and they can create a new life instead of waiting hopelessly and endlessly that something will change here,” Kiatamba said. “There are three layers to this — a new anti-immigrant bias, unpredictably and the trauma of waiting to see if there will be more cancellations” of protected status.
Jacques LeBlanc, president of the Haitian American Community Association in Chicago, said thousands of Haitians now live “day by day.”
“Everyone is leaving their options open . . . like a bird,” LeBlanc said. “What does a bird do? When it’s cold, they migrate someplace warmer.”
One 48-year-old woman crossed the border into Quebec this spring with her husband, son and brother after they said local police and federal immigration agents began harassing undocumented immigrants in suburban Atlanta. She had been living in the United States for 13 years.
“When Trump first got elected, all the police would go around to the apartments and say, ‘Come over here,’ banging on the doors,” said the woman, who is Honduran and asked not to be identified while her case for protected status in Canada is pending. “I got scared and scared for my son.”
So she paid someone $600 to drive her to the Canadian border, she said.
" I am hoping here in Canada, I can live without fear, and in peace, and nobody is going to look for me," she said.
‘I didn’t vote for Trump for this’
Worried about the safety of the migrants, local officials in Kittson County and Emerson-Franklin sent a joint letter in August asking Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Minnesota’s congressional delegation and U.S. and Canadian immigration and border patrol agencies to address the matter.
The letter said the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement should be suspended so that migrants can claim asylum at official border crossings.
“Our woods have large populations of wolves and bears, which could present a danger to those wandering around,” the letter said. “Correcting this problem should easily be within the power of both federal governments.”
Officials in both municipalities said they have not received a response.
“We don’t know why they haven’t gotten back to us,” said Betty Younggren, chair of the Kittson County Board of Commissioners. “This is a whole new subject for us, and it was very surprising for us . . . and we just don’t want these people to suffer.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined to address the letter directly but said in a statement that it advises that all border crossings occur at official ports of entry, suggesting that all other travelers will be stopped.
“If it is determined that the subject being questioned has valid immigration status, the subject is released and is allowed to continue with their travels,” the agency statement said.
But Eric Christensen, Kittson County’s administrator, worries that tens of thousands of people could decide to flee north if the Trump administration starts deporting Haitians or removes protected status from others.
“I don’t think there is enough of Haiti left to suddenly hold 60,000 people, so Canada is the only option for the people pushed off,” Christensen said. “And if he ever pulls the protection for Honduras or El Salvador, we would have a flood.”
Tom Denton, executive director of Hospitality House Refugee Ministry in Winnipeg, Canada, which has mentored and cared for some of the asylum seekers crossing the border from Minnesota, said that forecasting future arrivals “all depends on what’s happening in the United States.”
American “politics is so volatile right now, every day we wonder what is going to happen next,” Denton said, adding that he thinks the Canadian government ultimately will grant asylum to about half of the refugee claimants who recently fled the United States.
Here in northwestern Minnesota, the prospect of even more-heated debates over immigration policy is dividing local residents.
Once a Democratic-leaning county, Kittson went for Trump in last year’s election by more than 20 points after voters here concluded that he was more attuned to rural American concerns about population loss and stagnant local economies, residents said. Kittson County has lost half of its population since 1960; it now has 4,300 residents.
But at the Chale’s Oil service station, where locals gather to socialize while buying gas for farm equipment and waiting to have tires replaced on trucks and tractors, some residents wondered whether Trump’s immigration crackdown has gone too far.
“Some of them have been here so long, and they have families,” said Matt Chale, 27, whose father owns the century-old service station. “Why would you take the dad away from kids and send him to Mexico? That is just wrong, and I didn’t vote for Trump for this.”
Shane Stewart, who owns a 500-acre farm nearby and also voted for Trump, is not as sympathetic.
“I can’t even figure out why we have all of these refugees, or whatever you call them, and I am not in favor of them being here,” Stewart said.
Johnston said Canadians want to be neighborly but worry that unpredictable policy in Washington will keep manifesting itself in migrant flows through their sugar beet and wheat fields.
“Is it going to stop tomorrow? Is it going to stop five years from now?” said Johnston, noting that various studies estimate 11 million to 12.5 million undocumented immigrants are living in the United States. “Are they all coming to Canada? What if even 1 percent comes?”