CORNWALL, ONTARIO, AND MASSENA, N.Y. — In early morning darkness, Safeyban Hashi set out on the first boat trip of his life - a 10-minute dash across the St. Lawrence River from Canada to the United States in an outboard driven by a "native man."
The price to smuggle Mr. Hashi, a young Somali, into the US on Nov. 7 was cheap: $370. Let off on the US shoreline, he was directed by the smuggler to walk up a path to a road, where a taxi waited to take him to a nearby bus station.
While some 1 million Mexicans illegally cross the US southern border each year, a smaller but fast-growing number of Asians, Europeans, and others are being smuggled across the lightly patrolled, but longer Canada-US border. Canada is becoming a major gateway for people being smuggled across the almost 4,000-mile border, US authorities say.
As many as 15,000 people annually are moved by smuggling rings through border "hot spots" near Vancouver, B.C., Niagara Falls, Ontario, and Cornwall, Ontario.
None is a hotter spot than the Cornwall stretch of the US-Canada border known as "Smugglers' Alley."
Here, in a tangle of islands, water, and provincial-state-international boundaries that provide perfect cover to smugglers, the St. Lawrence River meets the borders of Ontario, Quebec, New York State, and the Akwesasne Mohawk Indian reservation.
In this lucrative zone, cigarettes were once the contraband of choice. Now with lower cigarette taxes, it is liquor, weapons - and people.
The smuggling of people is fast becoming the most lucrative part of the black-market business here, because fees to smuggle a single individual are usually much higher than the $370 charged Hashi for his short boat ride.
Last week Canadian and US authorities broke up a major international syndicate that charged up to $38,000 per person to smuggle people from China's Fujian Province, through Canada and then to the US. Cornwall was the final transit point used by the 13 arrested smugglers.
For at least two years the ring had flown 30 to 40 people from Fujian Province each month - up to 400 a year, through Canada and into the US via Cornwall, says Randy Wilson, a detective in the Metro Toronto Police force. Yet many other rings go undetected, he says.
Richard Ashlaw, head of the six-man border patrol office at Massena, N.Y., recently transferred from the US-Mexican border near Del Rio, Texas, where a typical day involved rounding up scores or even hundreds of illegal immigrants from Mexico. He says he thought Cornwall region would be comparatively quiet.
"I was quite shocked at the amount of activity up here and the sophistication of the smugglers," he says. "There are not as many - but we're busy all the time." And he and staff are getting busier.
Last year, for instance, the US Border Patrol caught 299 people sneaking into the US through the smugglers' alley region, compared with 189 caught in the region in fiscal year 1995, and 67 illegals in fiscal 1994.
Reservation's unique geography
Ed Duda, assistant chief for the border that runs across upstate New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire, says the number of people caught who are apparently funneled through the Akwesasne Reservation is rising, while there is a decrease in other areas he oversees.
"It's definitely shifting toward the reservation," Mr. Duda says. "It provides virtually unmolested passage because of the virtually unique geography and jurisdictional boundaries of that area."
Lewis Mitchell, native police chief in St. Regis, Quebec, on the Mohawk reservation agrees there has been a jump in smuggling overall through the reserve since 1988. Only in the past two years has the number of people smuggled through really surged, he says.
"Smugglers will bring liquor, illegal aliens, anything they can make money off of through the reserve," Chief Mitchell says.
"I've heard of them bringing loads of diapers. We work with the RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] and the [US] Border Patrol. But with our geography and all the waterways, we can't stop it or cover it all," Mitchell says.
An important link
Several factors make the Indian reservation a key link in the smuggling chain. First, the reservation land lies across the international border with about 8,000 natives living on the Canadian side and 2,000 more on the US side. The reservation includes Cornwall Island, sitting strategically in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, between Cornwall and New York State.
A smuggler can leave Cornwall Island (Mohawk land) by boat, cross the river, drop a person off on the Canadian side of the reserve quite legally. Then the not-yet-illegal can walk by himself through the reservation, across the unmarked US border, and out the other side of the reservation.
Some illegals then take a taxi, have a limousine meet them, or walk south across Mohawk land and across the border, popping onto the highway from one of hundreds of back roads leading out of the reserve.
In Hashi's case, a friend dropped him on the east end of Cornwall Island, where he paid the smuggler, who then set out for the US side. Hashi took a $12 taxi ride to the bus station at Massena, N.Y., about 10 miles away.
He told the Monitor he missed an early morning bus, then slept overnight in a local motel. As he waited for the 9 a.m. bus to take him to Alexandria, Va., the next day, he was apprehended by US Border Patrol agent Jean-Pierre Plante. These days the border patrol checks every bus.
US and Canadian authorities avoid pointing fingers at the Mohawk reservation publicly, but privately say most smuggling flows through Mohawk land.
Although smuggling is not embraced by the vast majority of Mohawks living there, they and others say it is tolerated because a small but heavily armed group favors it and intimidates any who oppose them.
"It's only a small fraction of the native population - a few bad apples that are smuggling," says Mr. Plante. "But there are not enough men in the entire border patrol to cover all those little roads coming out of the reservation."
Yet neither the US nor Canadian federal government has an appetite for the sort of tough fight that would be needed to close smugglers' alley.
The Oka 'incident'
A 1990 land dispute led to a gun battle in Oka, Quebec, on the nearby Khanawake reservation, which left one Quebec policeman dead. Since then, Canadian authorities have mostly left the Mohawks to govern themselves.
US authorities say they go on the reservations, but do not do so in any systematic way. Large signs along the highway leading through the Akwesasne reserve say: "No F.B.I., No I.R.S." while nearby banners portray native warriors toting automatic weapons.
Repeated phone calls to Mohawk authorities went unreturned. Vaughn Phillips, a Mohawk chief handling the justice portfolio for the reservation, did not return repeated phones calls.
Chief Mitchell of the Akwesasne police force says smuggling organizations, like the Chinese ring recently unearthed, are responsible for the flow of people coming into the reservation.
"These organizations come from all over Canada and the US" to smuggle people through, he says. "We don't ignore it if we come across it. But smuggling is not our mandate. It's a federal mandate."
How it impacts a local community
Across the river in Cornwall, Ontario, a blue-collar town of 47,000 people, Mayor Ron Martelle says smuggling subtly undermines his community by introducing violent criminals, mostly unseen, into the community.
And when it pops into view it can be ugly, as happened last month when a boatload of people being smuggled across the St. Lawrence capsized and one woman from Pakistan drowned.
"Washington and Ottawa do not have the courage to address this situation, because in their lack of wisdom they feel it is politically incorrect to go onto that reserve and fix the situation," Mr. Martelle says. "The law is the law. But they don't want another Oka."
American border authorities say they have a close working relationship with Canadian law enforcement, but they complain that Canadian law makes it easy for travelers from some countries to arrive in Canada with little or no documentation and claim refugee status.
As the wheels of the refugee review process grind, the "refugees" make their plans to be smuggled into the US - as in the case of the Chinese from Fujian Province.
Police say the "refugees" were told to request asylum immediately. Days later, the "refugees" were on their way over the border through smugglers' alley.
In Hashi's case, he made his way to Canada several years ago. He only recently decided to head for the US, shortly after a Canadian refugee board turned down his plea for asylum. He was set to be deported back to Mogadishu, Somalia.
"I didn't have any papers when I came to Canada, and now they said 'no' to me," says Hashi, standing dejectedly at the same bus station where he was caught that morning.
Canadian authorities confirm Hashi's refugee status was recently turned down. But Canada will not permit United States authorities to return Hashi because, like so many others, he had violated the terms of his refugee status when he crossed the border. He is a US problem now.
Because Hashi has no criminal record in Canada, Ashlaw and his fellow patrolmen decided he poses no threat to the US. There is no room for him in detention unless he is a criminal, Ashlaw explains.
Set to board the bus to Alexandria, Va., where he has relatives living legally in the United States, Hashi is told to report to an immigration officer every 30 days until his deportation hearing.
"I hope that I will be able to find a place in the United States," he says, standing at the steps of the bus, a navy-blue nylon blazer shielding him from the cold November wind. "I hope that I can stay here."