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Mexican man who died on U.S. border struggled to pay bills in Canada, family says

The Mexican man who died Feb. 19 shortly after crossing the border into the United States near Stanstead — in the Eastern Townships region of Quebec — had travelled from Toronto, where he and his family had been living for less than a year.

Jose Leos Cervantes, 45, had been struggling to make a living in the Ontario capital when he decided to try his luck in the U.S., his wife said in an interview with a Mexican radio station. 

The family moved to Toronto in June, hoping to get better pay and better work conditions. 

But she said Leos Cervantes lost his job two months ago and struggled to find another that could pay for their rent over the winter months. The couple have three children. 

One of Leos Cervantes’s daughters, Yanahi Leos Reyes, posted on Facebook last week about her father’s death, asking for donations so the family could pay to have his body repatriated to their home city of Aguascalientes in central Mexico.

Another daughter wrote: “I’ll never forget you. You were always my role model. I love you so much, Dad.”

After struggling in Canada, many have tried their luck heading south. Others have come to Canada to avoid stricter policies at the U.S. southern border. 

Jose Leos Cervantes, a 45-year-old Mexican man who died after crossing through the Swanton Sector, had three children and had been living in Toronto. (Facebook)

2nd border death this year

Since October, U.S. border agents have intercepted 1,513 people in the Swanton Sector, a stretch of the border from the New Hampshire-Maine state line to the western edge of St. Lawrence County in New York state. 

That number is already 42 per cent higher than the year ending October 2022, during which agents stopped 1,065 people. 

Leos Cervantes’s death occurred less than two months after that of Fritznel Richard, a 44-year-old Haitian man whose frozen body was found more than a week after he attempted to cross by foot into the United States on Dec. 23. Like Leos Cervantes, Richard had struggled to make ends meet in Canada.

U.S. border patrol agents for the Swanton Sector said recently the 115 people they apprehended over one week in February were from 12 different countries, mostly from Mexico.

“Unfortunately, perilous weather has done nothing to deter this traffic. Don’t risk it!” they said on Facebook.

 A snow-covered sign is seen in front of a one-storey office building.
The U.S. border agents who patrol the Swanton Sector recently warned against attempted crossings because of the frigid temperatures. (Wilson Ring/The Associated Press)

Charlie Barnett of Brome, Que., says he’s lived near the U.S. border most of his life. The house he’s lived in for nearly 20 years sits about 500 metres from the borderline.

“In the past year, I’ve probably seen half a dozen people walking down the railroad tracks,” heading into the U.S., Barnett said.

Worsening conditions 

Kate Paarlberg-Kvam, who runs a non-profit in southern Vermont called Community Asylum Seekers Project, said her group has been receiving calls from U.S. border agents asking if it could help asylum seekers who recently crossed into the U.S. from Quebec. 

“I’m not surprised that it’s happening because the Biden administration has chosen to … deny people their legal rights. So, of course, they’re going to find another place to cross,” Paarlberg-Kvam said in a phone interview Thursday.

The U.S. government, under President Joe Biden, has prolonged pandemic-era restrictions on migrants crossing from Mexico. Earlier this year, it also announced a policy preventing migrants from countries including Venezuela and Haiti from claiming asylum in the U.S., instead opening avenues for them to apply for two-year visas.

But Paarlberg-Kvam says immigration processes in the U.S. are backlogged, too. 

“It sounds like conditions for asylum seekers on both sides of the border are pretty crappy, so it is pushing people to try on the other side — with not necessarily wonderful things happening upon arrival in either direction,” they said.

Vermont police are investigating Leos Cervantes’s death. In a news release, U.S. Attorney’s Office said he had been clutching a tree and collapsed as border agents approached him, another man and a woman he was with in Derby, Vermont, just south of Stanstead.

Leos Reyes, his daughter, told the Journal de Montréal he had paid a smuggler more than $3,200 US to help get him across. She said her father suffered from asthma and had a sinus infection at the time. 

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said police arrested Maria Constante-Zamora, 31, an Ecuadorian woman living in Connecticut. 

Constante-Zamora has been charged “with unlawfully attempting to transport three individuals within the United States while knowing or recklessly disregarding that the individuals had come to and entered the United States in violation of the law.”

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