Migrant Surge — At the Northern Border

And they’re likely not all ‘asylum seekers’

By Andrew R. Arthur on February 23, 2023

Lost amidst the din of CBP’s apprehension numbers at the southwest border is a surge of migrants at the northern border — the 5,525-mile one the United States shares with Canada. While the number of CBP northern border encounters are low compared to the ones at the U.S.-Mexico line, they are still troubling — particularly in the Border Patrol’s Swanton (Vt.) sector.

The Northern Border. Of the 5,525 miles of border that the United States shares with its neighbor to the north, 3,145 are on land and 2,380 cross the waters of the Great Lakes. That border separates 13 U.S. states from eight Canadian provinces and territories, from New Brunswick/Maine to the east to Alaska/Yukon to the west and north.

By comparison, the southwest border is 1,954 miles long, and runs along the Rio Grande and the Sonoran Desert, with the boot-heel of New Mexico and eastern Arizona thrown in for good measure.

CBP Encounters. In FY 2021, CBP encountered more than 1.7 million aliens at the southwest border ports and between those ports, a figure that climbed to nearly 2.4 million in FY 2022. Already in the first four months of FY 2023, southwest border encounters are closing in on 875,000.

Things have been a bit slower at the northern border, but only by comparison. CBP encountered just over 27,000 aliens there in FY 2021, a figure that quadrupled to more than 109,000 in FY 2022. Through the end of January, CBP has encountered nearly 56,000 aliens at the Canadian line and are on track to hit almost 223,000 this fiscal year — more than doubling the already high FY 2022 figure.

CBP “encounters” are the combined total of aliens deemed inadmissible by CBP officers at the ports of entry and illegal migrants apprehended by Border Patrol agents between those ports.

There are any number of reasons why aliens would be deemed inadmissible, but the most common ones along the northern border are that the alien has no documents to enter and is seeking to make an asylum claim, or simply forgot his or her passport or visa, or that the alien has a criminal record — either in Canada or further abroad — that would render the alien inadmissible to the United States.

There is only one reason, however, that a migrant would be stopped by Border Patrol agents, and that is the alien is attempting to bypass inspection at the ports to enter the United States illegally.

Inadmissible Aliens at the Northern Ports. The number of aliens deemed inadmissible at the northern ports rose more than 300 percent between FY 2021 and FY 2022 — from more than 26,000 to 107,000-plus. More than 40,000 of those inadmissible aliens were Canadian nationals, and given that most Canadians don’t need visas to enter this country, they were likely inadmissible because they had criminal records.

The number of “other than Canadian” nationals deemed inadmissible at the northern border ports jumped sixfold between FY 2021 and FY 2022 — from around 10,250 to nearly 67,000. Around 10 percent of them last fiscal year (nearly 6,700) were from China, nearly 2,000 came from Colombia, more than 1,500 were from the Philippines, and 1,300-plus were from Ukraine. Most importantly, nearly 32,000 of them were from “other” countries around the world.

Border Patrol Apprehensions from the Canadian Side. Northern sector Border Patrol apprehensions saw a much more modest 144 percent increase between FY 2021 (916) and FY 2022 (2,238), but already in the first four months of FY 2023, agents at the northern border have nearly hit last year’s apprehension total, with 2,227 illegal entrants caught there through the end of January.

A handful (33) of those apprehended in FY 2023 have been Canadians, likely ones who are otherwise inadmissible.

Meanwhile, the number of Haitians apprehended there has jumped from eight in FY 2022 to 132, the number of Venezuelans from five to 45, and the number of “others” apprehended there is already more than half of last year’s total (from 204 in FY 2022 to 131 in the first quarter of FY 2023). Interestingly, Mexican apprehensions are already 46 percent higher in FY 2023 (1,286) than they were in FY 2022 (882).

Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement. Canada is unique from a U.S. immigration perspective because it is the only country with which the United States currently has a safe third country agreement. That “Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement” has been in effect since late December 2004.

Under that agreement, aliens present in the United States or Canada must apply for asylum in that country. U.S. nationals can still seek asylum in Canada, of course, and vice-versa.

Notably, however, as the Congressional Research Service explains, the agreement applies only to aliens “who present themselves at ports of entry on the U.S.-Canada land border and to aliens in transit during removal from the U.S. or Canada”, and does not apply to illegal entrants to either country.

One other notable exception applies to aliens with family ties in either the United States or Canada.

If an asylum applicant at a U.S. port of entry who hasn’t applied for protection in Canada has a spouse, son, daughter, parent, legal guardian, sibling, grandparent, grandchild, aunt, uncle, niece, or nephew in the United States with asylee, refugee, or other legal status, or who is applying for asylum, that alien can seek an exception under the agreement.

The agreement is somewhat lopsided, because it’s a lot more difficult to enter Canada from a third country than it is to enter the United States.

Air Canada, the nation’s flag carrier, is partially owned by the Canadian government, and its agents abroad closely examine documents presented by alien passengers before they are allowed to board. The only land routes are from the United States, and Canadian ports are a long way from any country other than this one.

Accordingly, those aliens deemed inadmissible at the northern border ports of entry who were making asylum claims should have been turned around unless they had family with legal status in this country or who are applying for asylum here.

The ones apprehended entering illegally, on the other hand, are free to make an asylum claim in the United States.

Mexico As a Visa-Exempt Country. As is true in the United States, nationals of certain countries are exempted from seeking visas before entering Canada.

Whereas there are just 40 such “visa waiver” nationalities under U.S. law (mostly from countries in Western Europe, as well as Australia, Brunei, Chile, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan), Canada’s “visa exempt” list is more expansive, and includes The Bahamas, Barbados, Hong Kong, Israel, Samoa, the United Arab Emirates — and Mexico.

Thus, a Mexican national seeking to enter the United States can easily fly to Vancouver, Toronto, or Montreal, and cross illegally.

Swanton Sector. Which brings me back to the 245 miles of the northern border that falls under the jurisdiction of Border Patrol’s Swanton sector.

Of the 2,227 illegal migrants apprehended crossing between ports of entry at the northern border in FY 2023, 68 percent of them (1,513) have been caught in Swanton sector. Why Swanton?

Good question. Swanton sector runs from the western state border of Maine along the northern borders of New Hampshire and Vermont, and into the eastern third of the northern border of New York.

It is about 50 miles from the biggest nearby city — Montreal — to the U.S. border just north of the town of Swanton, Vt., and 40 miles to the U.S. border north of Champlain, N.Y. (also in Swanton sector). Nearly all (1,067) of those Swanton sector apprehensions have occurred on the New York side.

Montreal is likely the most cosmopolitan city in Canada: According to Canadian census statistics from 2016, around 36 percent of the residents speak only French, 7 percent speak only English, and 55 percent speak both, but nearly 192,000 Montreal residents of speak Arabic at home, while another 146,000 speak Spanish there.

All told, some language other than French or English is the mother tongue of nearly 1.01 million of Montreal’s population of 4.053 million residents.

If you were from any Francophone country and living in Canada, there’s a good chance Montreal or its environs would be your home already, and given the mix in the city, it’s an acceptable choice for any other non-English-speaker in the country.

And if you are going to Canada to enter the United States illegally, Montréal–Trudeau Airport (Canada’s third busiest) would be the best place to start, given its proximity to the U.S. border.

Swanton sector, therefore, is likely the busiest on the northern border thanks to the classic real estate axiom: “Location, location, location.”

The Two Unknowns. That may all explain why migrants are entering illegally over the northern border, and in particularl why they are entering illegally through Swanton sector, but it still leaves two unknowns: (1) Why are CBP’s northern border numbers surging now; and (2) how many illegal migrants there aren’t being caught?

I cannot dispositively answer either of those questions, but I have some good guesses, and they relate to the same issue: staffing.

Even though the northern border is more than twice as long as the southwest one, staffing levels are much lower there. As of FY 2020, there were just over 2,000 agents on the northern border, compared to nearly 17,000 on the U.S.-Mexico line. For what it’s worth, about 300 agents were assigned to Swanton sector.

On February 20, the Daily Signal reported that a large number of northern border agents have been redeployed to the southwest border of late, reaching a 2022 peak of 464 redeployments — nearly a quarter of the total northern cadre. Currently, 29 northern border agents are redeployed there.

Curiously, on February 17, NewsNation’s border correspondent Ali Bradley tweeted:


That suggests that DHS has concluded that third-country aliens seeking to enter the United States illegally are now exploiting the depleted agent staffing at the northern border (assuming that they can get to Canada), and that the department believes that the number of aliens who are detected entering illegally but who evade apprehension (known colloquially as “got-aways”) is surging at the northern line.

We have long known that the disaster the Biden administration has birthed through its feckless immigration policies is a national-security vulnerability at the Mexican border. Increasingly, it’s an issue at the Canadian one, too — particularly in Border Patrol’s Swanton sector. And they probably aren’t all “asylum seekers”.