Deadly Crossing

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down

Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee.

The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead

When the skies of November turn gloomy.

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, by Gordon Lightfoot (1938—)

We don’t know to which Chippewa the song refers. Perhaps it’s the Chippewa Nation territory north of Gitche Gumee (a.k.a. Lake Superior, where we pedaled on the 2014 Ride to the Great Lakes).

Anyway, we thought of the song when we biked 22 miles from Jeffrey’s native village . . .

. . . to Chippewa Bay, NY . . .

L to R, beside the St. Lawrence: Joey, Jeffrey.

. . . where Great Lakes water flows between the U.S. and Canada on its way to the Atlantic Ocean.

You can’t see much of Canada from here; only distant bits between the American islands in this wide section of the St. Lawrence. A few miles northeast, the river narrows, and Canadian waters are just a half mile away. Keep going to the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation where the river turns north from the border, and you can walk into Canada.

In Jeffrey’s professional experience, Canada strictly enforces its immigration laws. Those laws are generous. Years ago, Jeffrey arranged with the Canadian consulate to accept jailed clients from Lebanon and Iran who had been arrested here while in transit to Canada. Another client, from what now is called (with unwitting irony) the Democratic Republic of the Congo, found refuge in French Canada using the papers Jeffrey had prepared for her U.S. case.

A Somali client, jailed, then denied U.S. asylum, was released due to jail overcrowding. He got himself smuggled into Canada before Jeffrey won his appeal. The client thanked Jeffrey but had no interest in returning to the U.S. The Canadians had given him a stern lecture at the border, then released him to study computer science while he pursued asylum. The U.S. had isolated him for months in a windowless warehouse used as an immigration jail.

Jeffrey defended these refugees many years ago. As court decisions and executive policies made the U.S. asylum system more humane, fewer of Jeffrey’s clients looked north.

Then came the 2016 election. America began to break its own laws to reject asylum applicants. Refugees fled to Canada. Some braved dangerous winter weather. Frostbite was common; in at least two cases, refugees’ fingers and toes were amputated. But so far as we know, people crossing into Canada lived.

In the 22 years from 1998 to 2020, at least 7,000 people (318 per year) died crossing into the U.S. from the south. (Contrast this with the 725 or fewer people [estimates vary] who died seeking to escape the former East Germany in the 40 years from 1949-89.)

”The [desert], it is said, never gives up her dead . . .” Hundreds of migrants disappear, and hundreds of bodies are recovered and never identified.

From Chippewa Bay, we looked at Canada’s cool blue-green southern border.

We thought of America’s hot brown southern border, and of how hard it was for us to cross northern Arizona from town to town in April 2017, on our bike, on paved roads with passers-by, with money in Jeffrey’s pocket, and with our friend George shadowing us from Albuquerque until we crossed California’s Mojave Desert.

George parked to wait for us at the end of our long climb to Union Pass, before a 12 mile (20 km) downhill to Bullhead City, Arizona. Note our US flag and Sprint 26 trike visible behind George’s truck, and the water bottles left for migrants at the edge of the road.

Look at our 2017 Arizona photos.

Think of being so desperate and afraid . . .
. . . that you cross miles of this terrain on foot, without shelter, and with only the water you can carry . . .
. . . and that you get lost, alone or with a companion who is parched like you, when it’s 120F (50C) by day, freezing cold by night.

Since January 20, America’s asylum system has begun to heal.

But the U.S. border remains fortified against migrants, including asylum seekers.

Our southwest desert this year is hotter and deadlier than ever: “It’s so hot that even having water isn’t necessarily going to save somebody’s life. Some of the people who were found dead had water on them—that’s a tough pill to swallow.”

Those thoughts left us sad and ashamed.