Mavis Otuteye, 57, died while apparently attempting to cross the border into Canada last week
Scott Webster, a deputy patrol agent in charge of the Pembina Border Station, walks past a gravel road where he has parked his truck to a long, empty drainage ditch in Minnesota.
The ditch is less than a kilometre from the Manitoba border and it's where 57-year-old Mavis Otuteye, who police believe was trying to cross into Canada, was found dead.
Mavis Otuteye, 57, is believed to have died of hypothermia trying to cross the border into Canada to claim asylum. (Facebook/Mavis Otuteye)
The Kittson County sheriff's department received a call last Thursday about a missing woman who was last believed to be in the county on Monday. Members of the sheriff's office and the U.S. Border Patrol went out on foot, in trucks and on all-terrain vehicles to search.
Webster said they also had air support from a helicopter, which spotted a backpack nearby. From there, officers tracked signs of a person until they found the body.
"Actually, [it's] not surprising. We have been talking about this for a long time now, several years, just the conditions that are out there," Webster said, looking out into the field.
"I am surprised that it happened in the spring, as opposed to the winter months. It was just a matter of time."
While the winter brings frigid temperatures, the rain can also make the journey perilous. Webster said the field gets muddy, people can get stuck and it's common for patrol officers to find shoes that didn't make the trek.
The woman's body was found in the drainage ditch, says Scott Webster, a deputy patrol agent in charge of the Pembina Border Station. (Gary Solilak/CBC)
The daytime weather may be warmer, but without proper clothing the nighttime cold can chill a person. Webster said Otuteye wasn't found with any clothing for the cold weather — she just had on a shirt and pants.
"Once you are wet and travelling without the proper clothing, hypothermia can set in," he said.
A preliminary autopsy report said Otuteye, who police believe is a citizen of Ghana, died from hypothermia. Police said they are still waiting on a final autopsy.
Mike Ohmann, who lives on property only 800 metres from where the body was found, has seen people cross his driveway on their way out of the U.S. In the winter, he said he has found footprints across his property.
"I feel sad that people have to do it, to come into your country this way. I think it would be a lot better if they made it easier legally," he said.
"I don't understand why they are trying to flee America so bad. I can see if they are trying to flee Syria or if they are trying to flee Afghanistan, but why would they risk their lives to flee the U.S. to get into Canada? It makes no sense."
In the first four months of this year, the RCMP intercepted 477 asylum seekers in Manitoba, federal government figures state.
They make the dangerous journey overland rather than going through the official port of entry because under the Safe Third Country Agreement between the U.S. and Canada, asylum seekers must make refugee claims in the first country they reach. That means those coming from the U.S. would be turned back at the border.
However, if they cross somewhere other than an official port of entry and are able to get into Canada, the United Nations Refugee Convention requires Canada to hear their refugee claim.
There has been criticism of the agreement, including from the Manitoba NDP, law students and doctors, and many have called on Ottawa to suspend or repeal it.
On Wednesday, Winnipeg immigration lawyer Bashir Khan said when the deal was signed in 2004, "it sealed her fate."
"I think Canadian law is to be held responsible for that woman's death — for that innocent woman's death."
While Ohmann finds the death tragic, he said Canada needs to stop sending the message that asylum seekers are invited.
"Don't invite them in, like they have. They've invited them in," he said.
"We feel like if people want to leave the U.S., let them go because we love the U.S. We don't understand why anyone would want to leave it like they are fleeing," he added.
For Webster, a lot of his job patrolling the American side of the border has turned into rescue, particularly as the number of people trying to cross the border has stayed steady.
"I wouldn't recommend, even in the daytime, to traverse this terrain. At night it's even worse."