Heavy winds and blinding snow were sweeping through the tiny town of Emerson, Canada, around dawn on Wednesday morning when the call came in to local fire chief Jeff French: a group of asylum seekers from the United States had just crossed the Canadian border, but got pinned down by the blizzard somewhere on the outskirts of town.
With roads closed in the area, temperatures in the single digits and winds gusting at 50 mph, French and his crew dispatched the town's transit bus to rescue them.
Shortly after 7 a.m., firefighters found 17 people huddled together in a rickety wooden storage shed near an old golf course, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported. Among them were a 1-year-old baby and a pregnant woman.
The rescue was a reminder of the risks migrants have taken since the beginning of the year as they've fled to Canada in increasing numbers to escape a crackdown on undocumented immigrants by the Trump administration.
Emerson has emerged as a front line in the fallout from the administration's travel ban and aggressive immigration enforcement tactics. The town, with a population of less than 700, sits just north of the Minnesota and North Dakota state lines, and the border is not heavily monitored.
Since the beginning of the year, more than 200 people have crossed the border into Emerson, many of them African and Middle Eastern migrants fleeing from urban hubs such as Minneapolis. They cross through open fields because under the Canada-U. S. Safe Third Country Agreement, they would be turned back at official border crossings if they have already requested refugee protection in the U.S.
Quebec reported six times more refugee claims in February than in the same month a year ago, with a total of 635 people crossing from the U.S.
Migrants who flee to Canada from the United States are typically arrested and screened by Canadian authorities. Those cleared are released to the Canadian Border Security Agency, where they can apply for refugee status.
The migrants found near Emerson told firefighters they had been dropped off near the border and walked for about an hour through the snowy prairie before someone called Canadian authorities.
"Even an hour in this wind and this weather is a long time," French told reporters afterward. "We got them out of the elements right away and into a warm place."
One person was taken to the hospital and treated for a broken arm, firefighters said. The others were checked for hypothermia and frostbite, then turned over to Canadian Border Services Agency for processing. The baby was not injured, Global News reported.
The previous night, firefighters and Royal Canadian Mounted Police responded to reports that two migrants had gotten separated from the group and were lost. After about a half-hour search, firefighters found them and took them in.
The Canadian government has pursued an open-armed policy toward asylum seekers. On Saturday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said he will not try to deter migrants from crossing the border illegally through increased border security, Reuters reported. Instead, he said, the government will devote more resources to deal with the surge of newcomers.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has personally greeted some refugees who have entered the country, and has said he welcomes people who were rejected from the United States under President Donald Trump's travel ban, though he is facing pressure from conservatives to tighten border controls.
Canadian police, however, have discouraged asylum seekers from walking for long stretches through subfreezing temperatures and intense wind and snow – a call they reiterated Wednesday after the migrants were picked up in Emerson.
"The RCMP strongly discourages those attempting to cross the border from making the trek," Sgt. Cory Meyers, Manitoba's head of border enforcement, said in a statement. "The risks are too high in this harsh weather."
Town officials in Emerson said they were stunned that the asylum seekers had decided to travel in Wednesday's storm.
"Of all things it was probably one of the windiest blizzards we've had all winter and they come across where it's literally zero visibility," Greg Janzen, the town manager, told the Canadian Press. "I think they walked almost right through Emerson without knowing they were here."
Late last year, two Ghanaian immigrants lost all their fingers to frostbite after they spent hours trudging through waist-high snowdrifts near the North Dakota border, as The Washington Post reported. One of the men, Razak Iyal, told the Associated Press they stood on the highway looking for help for almost seven hours.
"Nobody was willing to help, no traffic stopped," he said. "We gave up. That was our end of our life."
Eventually, they were picked up by a passing driver who took them to Canada.
Mohamud Noor, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Community in Minnesota, told the CBC he worried that others would put their lives in danger by trekking across the border on foot.
"Because they don't have enough resources and they believe that's the only chance that they have," Noor said, "they'll take whatever risk that they can encounter."