In a period of just 14 days, there were 19 arrests related to human smuggling in the Houlton, Mars Hill, Van Buren and Fort Fairfield.
U.S. Border Agents with the Swanton Sector apprehended 677 people from 29 different countries in April. Credit: Courtesy of U.S. Border Patrol

HOULTON, Maine — With strict southern border policies making it nearly impossible for Mexicans to enter the United States legally, human smuggling on the northern border is increasing, according to the U.S. Border Patrol in Houlton.

In the last two weeks of April, the Houlton Sector border patrol agents disrupted multiple cross-border human smuggling operations, resulting in numerous arrests and vehicle seizures, according to William Maddocks, the U.S. Border Patrol’s Houlton sector chief patrol agent.

There were 19 arrests in 14 days in the small Aroostook County towns of Houlton, Mars Hill, Van Buren and Fort Fairfield, according to court records and police accounts. In the past two months there have been 30 illegal border crossing encounters. That’s more than they usually see in a year, according to Border Patrol.

The international border between Maine and the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick and Quebec stretches 611 miles and passes along forests, farms, small streams and vast unpopulated areas making undetected crossings easier. With not all of its 24 border crossings staffed, border patrol in Maine has asked for the public’s assistance in reporting unusual activity.

Additionally, Interstate 95 is close to The County locations, making it easier to travel undetected to larger cities, according to immigration experts.

“With such a high volume at the southern border, it makes sense some would go to Canada to get into the United States,” said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst with the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute based in Washington, D.C.

Mexico’s visa-free travel to Canada also makes it easier to bypass the southern border, which has led to a dramatic increase in northern border crossings from Canada, according to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

For example, people can fly from Mexico to Montreal, Quebec, for about $350. Other known flight locations are Fredericton, New Brunswick, and Toronto.

Once in Canada, those trying to get into the U.S. start heading south into Aroostook County to remote locations often given to them by a smuggler operating in Canada who they have already paid for the information, according to court documents.

Jorje Alberto Pacheco-Robles, who was arrested in New York, detailed how the smuggling operation works. He said ever since he entered the U.S. illegally, he was working with a man named Alejandro in Toronto who helped make the arrangements for him to pick up people who were crossing the border illegally.

Pacheo-Robles also said that he was usually paid between $500 and $1,500 per person to drive them to New York, Boston and Chicago, according to court documents.

Gelatt points to the Safe Third Country Agreement between the U.S. and Canada and how recent changes to the agreement are pushing some to try to cross at remote, obscure locations.

The agreement states that refugees must request protection at the first safe country they arrive in unless they have an exception.

Until recently, the Safe Third Country Agreement applied to official border crossings only and meant that if caught at a border crossing, the person was returned to the country where they first landed. For example, if someone flew into Canada and was then caught entering the U.S., they would get sent back to Canada or vice versa. But if someone entered a country not at a port of entry, the agreement did not apply.

That led to thousands of illegal entries at the U.S. Border Patrol Swanton Sector covering Vermont, New York and New Hampshire. And in particular the famous rural and dangerous Roxham Road entrance into Quebec.

But recent revisions extended the agreement to the entire 5,525-mile border between the U.S. and Canada, because the two governments are trying to halt the Roxham Road trek, Gelatt said, adding that now people are more likely to try and sneak across in rural areas like Aroostook County.

Take for example an April 21 illegal crossing at Mars Hill. Nine people crossed the international boundary from New Brunswick at the end of East Ridge Road in Mars Hill. Several agents found footprints where the nine had crossed and began tracking them into dense woods.

While agents searched, a homeowner reported to the Aroostook County sheriff that a surveillance camera picked up an individual crossing their property with a flashlight and wearing a backpack, according to court documents.

Two hours after the search for the nine began, a Volkswagon Jetta with Tennessee plates pulled up to the East Ridge Road crossing. Agents arrested Eduardo Ruiz Rojas, a citizen of Mexico who was living in Staten Island, New York, according to the U.S. attorney prosecuting Rojas’ case.

Other County examples include:

— Mars Hill on April 22: Seven arrested, including two charged for illegal reentry after removal, five prosecuted for improper entry into the U.S. Two vehicles were seized.

— Houlton on April 26: Two arrested, including one undocumented non-citizen prosecuted for improper entry into the U.S. and one U.S. citizen charged for human smuggling. One vehicle was seized.

— Fort Fairfield on April 28: Two arrested, including one prosecuted for improper entry into the U.S. and one voluntary return to Canada. One vehicle was seized.

— Van Buren on May 2: Eight arrested, including five prosecuted for improper entry into the U.S., one charged for illegal reentry after removal and two charged with human smuggling.  

“Organized, criminal human smuggling is a problem,” Maddocks said.

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...