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A death on the Canadian border: Dominican man was trying to reach his daughter in the U.S.

Wilson Reynoso Vega posted this selife on his Facebook account in November 2018, months before flying to Toronto. (Family photo)

MONTREAL — Wilson Reynoso Vega wanted to see his daughter.

Reynoso lived in the Dominican Republic; the 11-year-old girl lived in Philadelphia with her mother. But he spoke of her often and stayed in touch with her through regular video chats. Sometimes he blended her image into the pictures he posted of himself on Facebook, as if the two were already reunited.

Last month, Reynoso flew from Santo Domingo to Toronto. He found his way to the border between Quebec and New York and paid a smuggler to help him slip into the United States.

He never made it. Authorities think he became disoriented walking through the cold, dark, marshy woods on the Canadian side and drowned.

His death April 16 comes as Canada asks for U.S. help in hardening the border against a rising northward flow of asylum seekers — an effort that critics warn would make tragedy here more likely. The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wants to shut down unguarded points of entry here and elsewhere on the border. Critics say such a move would not stop would-be migrants but would just make their journey more perilous.

“You push people into more and more dangerous crossings, and that’s been the experience in the United States, right? And in Europe,” said Sean Rehaag, who teaches immigration and refugee law at York University in Toronto. “It just leads to loss of life.”

In a twist, Canada asks U.S. for help cracking down at its southern border

While hundreds of migrants die each year in the area of the U.S.-Mexico border, deaths on the U.S.-Canada border remain rare. That is at least partly a function of volume — nearly a hundred times more people were apprehended crossing the southern U.S. border last year than the northern border.

There were no statistics available for deaths on the northern border. Cpl. Genevieve Byrne, a spokeswoman for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, says “a very small number of people” have died over several decades in the area of Quebec where Reynoso was found; David Donah, the coroner in Clinton County, N.Y., remembers “one or two” deaths there, more than two decades ago.

The other most recent publicized death on the U.S.-Canada border occurred in 2017, when a Ghanaian woman succumbed to hypothermia trying to cross from remote Noyes, Minn., into Emerson, Manitoba.

But as traffic here rises — the number of southbound migrants apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol nearly doubled over two years to more than 4,300 in fiscal 2018, and officials on both sides say they are seeing more serious injuries and illnesses.

Reynoso’s death “serves as a reminder of the danger that people put themselves and others in when they seek to cross the border irregularly,” Canada’s federal immigration department said in a statement. U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Michael McCarthy warned against a “false perception that crossing the northern border is safer than crossing the southern border.”

Trudeau’s government sought to make the journey safer by allowing asylum seekers trying to reach Canada to enter at unofficial, “irregular” points of entry. The best known of these is just a few miles from the spot where Reynoso’s body was found: Roxham Road, where an estimated 40,000 people have crossed from Champlain, N.Y., into Hemmingford, Quebec, in the past two years. Police stationed there around the clock acknowledge the migrants’ asylum claims, register their entry and allow them to pass into Canada.

Now Trudeau’s government is asking the United States to renegotiate a border treaty to reduce that traffic. Under one proposal, Canada would shut down Roxham Road and other irregular points of entry; asylum seekers would be escorted to the nearest formal border checkpoint and be sent back into the United States.

The United States has not agreed to reopen the agreement.

A group of Americans is assisting immigrants as they illegally cross the Canadian border

Reynoso wasn’t a northbound asylum seeker — he was heading in the other direction.

Friends and family members say the 32-year-old was well known in the Dominican farming town of Guaraguao as a Christian and a singer, performing as Jensen Junior.

“Here in the town, he was like a mayor,” said his brother, Wilton Reynoso Vega. “Everyone knew him and loved him.”

But he missed his daughter, who spent the first several years of her life in the Dominican Republic before moving with her mother to the United States. His Facebook page is full of pictures of the girl, and they spoke often.

“For years, ever since his daughter left, he has wanted to go to the U.S.,” his brother said.

Reynoso Vega flew to Toronto on a tourist visa, friends and family members say. He had been rejected for a U.S. tourist visa — the reason is unclear — and hoped a Canadian stamp in his passport would improve his chances of being allowed entry to the United States. But others said he did not try again for a U.S. visa. Instead, he paid $3,500 to two smugglers to help him cross the border illegally.

They led him to believe “it was so easy,” according to Andrew Burzminski, a friend in Toronto.

The smugglers planned to drive a group of about a dozen men to the border, Burzminski said, and told them someone would pick them up on the U.S. side.

“There were two kilometers they had to [walk] by themselves,” Burzminski said. “They dropped them off and said, ‘Go straight.’ ”

The group appears to have made their way on the night of April 15 through the marshy woodland on the northwestern shore of Lake Champlain as temperatures dropped to freezing. At some point, Reynoso became disoriented and separated from the group.

The other members of the group, all Mexicans, said later there was something wrong with his legs and he was turning around, according to Ariel Pérez, a cousin.

“Every night, I think about that,” Pérez said. “Some people, when they get scared, their legs shake, they cannot walk.”

Eric Boyse grew up in the area and still lives nearby. He says locals consider the wooded marsh a “no man’s land.”

“None of us would dare even to take a chance walking through that area,” said Boyse, 72. “It’s very spongy. You get in there, it’s almost like a quicksand. . . . It’s obvious they didn’t have a clue.”

The other men, without Reynoso, straggled across the border near Rouses Point, N.Y., cold and soaking wet, and were promptly arrested. They reported Reynoso as missing.

Authorities on both sides of the border launched a search by helicopter and all-terrain vehicle. Reynoso’s body was found on the Canadian side the next day. The cause of death was determined to be drowning.

Canada fears a huge rush of asylum seekers if their U.S. protected status is lifted

Burzminski, Reynoso’s Toronto friend, identified the body. He said the coroner told him Reynoso had been hypothermic for hours before he died.

“He . . . didn’t know his left or right,” Burzminski said. “He probably couldn’t lift his face up anymore, and he just went down, and 30, 40 centimeters of water was enough to drown.”

Burzminski said Reynoso was found with rubber boots on his hands. Family members and friends said they think he was crawling and unable to make headway in the thick mud. Police said he had been moving in a circle.

U.S. authorities have arrested an Ecuadoran man in the case. The man told investigators that he was offered $600 to pick people up at Rouses Point, investigators said in a criminal complaint.

Boyse said that others have died in the borderland but that he has never seen reports in local media.

“They get lost and freeze in the woods,” he said.

Donah, the local coroner, called deaths “few and far between.”

“They find them sometimes in the spring,” he said. “Somebody that has tried to get across the border and died from exposure.”

Before Canada began allowing asylum seekers to enter at Roxham Road, Byrne said, rescues were frequent.

“We came across all kinds of situations,” the police spokeswoman said. “Health issues, bad weather conditions.”

Reynoso’s friends and family members said they want would-be migrants and those who work with them to understand the dangers.

“People have to know,” Burzminski said. “He didn’t have to die. Nobody had to die.”

Hundreds in the Dominican Republic and Canada have written tributes to Reynoso on social media.

Reynoso’s body remains in Montreal, Pérez said, because the family cannot afford the thousands of dollars needed to repatriate it. His mother has been hospitalized, Pérez said.

“My mom is destroyed,” Reynoso’s brother said. “She cannot even talk.”

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