US-CANADA BORDER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — IT looks easy enough to get across.
One short hop over a shallow trench is all that separates Double Ditch Road in the United States from Zero Avenue on the Canadian side.
But with a growing number of illegal immigrants sneaking into Canada from the US, this idyllic picture of two rural roads is deceptive.
The ``world's longest undefended border'' is actually bristling with seismic sensors, hidden video cameras, and border agents in unmarked cars.
A helicopter with see-in-the-dark infra-red detectors helps the Royal Canadian Mounted Police get their man or woman, day or night.
``We've seen quite a dramatic increase in the number of people crossing illegally into Canada from the US,'' says Cpl. Bill Thordarson, head of a special unit of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police assigned to intercept smugglers.
Canadian authorities worry that a US crackdown on illegals - including a referendum recently passed by California voters to halt services to illegal residents - may make Canada an attractive alternative.
Many crossing illegally into Canada are from Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Mexico with fewer from Somalia and Iran.
``This is a fairly new trend,'' says a Canadian immigration official. ``We don't want to see it grow.''
Canada's hottest zone for illegal crossings is south of Vancouver - a 28-mile stretch running from Point Roberts to where Zero Avenue ends, not far from Huntingdon, B.C.
In the busiest six-mile section, where Zero Avenue and Double Ditch Road run side by side, worn places in the grass along the two roads appear to be footpaths across the border.
For the first time ever, the number of refugee claims last year at the Vancouver immigration office surpassed those at ports of entry along the border, signaling that immigrants are sneaking through rather than registering as refugees at points of entry. That is expected to be repeated again this year, authorities say.
Last year, 636 people applied for refugee status at immigration headquarters in downtown Vancouver. Of those, 47.8 percent - or just over 300 - eluded immigration authorities at the US-Canada line, Canadian authorities say.
In the first quarter of this year, 172 people applied as refugees, 38 percent of whom evaded border authorities.
Easy to apply
In theory, there is no reason a would-be refugee should want to sneak across the border at all. Anyone can walk up to a legitimate port of entry and apply for refugee status, immigration officials say.
The problem, however, is that applying for refugee status at the border often results in weeks or months of waiting in the United States while papers are processed.
Since some of those trying to enter Canada as refugees are in the US illegally, they may fear being deported during their wait. They may prefer instead to get over the border first, then apply for refugee status.
Even if not staying in the US illegally, some immigrants may want to wait for the processing of their paperwork in Canada rather than the US to partake of one of the world's most generous refugee programs.
Once in Canada, a refugee claimant is eligible to find a job and receive welfare payments, housing assistance, and free medical care.
With deficit pressures causing Canada to downsize its social welfare and medical programs, Canadians are increasingly worried about the cost of supporting new immigrants. Prime Minister Jean Chretien's government recently cut the number of immigrants annually allowed into Canada.
Immigrants are not the same as refugees, though. To be categorized as a refugee one must be seeking asylum from persecution.
But each refugee applicant not allowed to live in Canada can cost about $37,000 ($50,000 Canadian) a year, government officials say. And the average refugee is in Canada one to two years before his or her case is decided.
Despite the reports of rising numbers of illegals crossing from the US, federal officials deny that they are concerned about this issue.
A spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada in Ottawa downplayed the issue, saying the government does not keep national statistics on the number of illegals it finds crossing the land border into Canada.
``It's not a big problem for us,'' says spokeswoman Andre Labelle. Still, he admits, ``we are in the midst of organizing a [national] database'' to record illegals caught by various Canadian authorities.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Patrol, whose duties were recently expanded to include catching those crossing illegally into Canada, admit they have a problem on their hands.
Corporal Thordarson's unit has caught up to six people at a time trying to sneak into Canada, although nabbing one or two at a time is more typical. His unit has been working closely with the US border patrol for more than a year, he says.
Of course, neither the 300 illegals identified in British Columbia last year nor the six caught in one swoop by the mounted police are likely to impress US authorities on the US-Mexico border, where groups of 50 to 100 people sometimes rush past US border guards.
Going my way?
There are myriad ways to cross. People jump freight trains, hide in the trunks of cars, and use small boats to get to Canadian soil. But most of the illegal crossers simply walk through, undetected.
People smugglers, Thordarson says, drive right up to the border and drop off illegals. The smuggler then crosses legally into Canada and goes back to pick up the illegal immigrants.
``We've stopped people coming from Central America where they lived in cardboard boxes,'' Thordarson says. ``Sometimes it's a real tug on the heart strings. But we're upholding the law.''