Year after death of Indian family at U.S. border, those left behind try to move on

Year after death of Indian family at U.S. border, those left behind try to move on

Baldev Patel can’t remember the last conversation he had with his son, and while the memories quickly fade, the pain remains.

Patel’s son, 39-year-old Jagdish Baldevbhai Patel, was found dead along with his wife and two children on January 19, 2022 near a Manitoba-United States border crossing.

The RCMP said the family tried to cross to the United States in severe winter weather and died from the exposure. Investigators also believe the deaths are linked to a people smuggling operation.

Jagdish Baldevbhai Patel’s wife was 37-year-old Vaishaliben Jagdishkumar Patel. Their daughter, Vihangi Jagdishkumar Patel, was 11 years old and their son, Dharmik Jagdishkumar Patel, was three years old.

“We worried about him when we didn’t hear from him. I spoke to him two or three days before he died,” Patel said of his son in a Hindi interview from his home in Dingucha, a village of about 3,000 in the western Indian state of Gujarat.

“I can’t exactly remember our last conversation. He had reached Canada. He wanted to go to the USA. He was happy.”

He said his son lived in a one-story house in Dingucha before moving to Canada. This house is now locked and unoccupied.

His son had various jobs including teaching, building and selling kites, the father said.

“Nothing worked.”

He’s not sure how his son decided on the route from Canada to the US or who he turned to for help.

“He wanted to go, he went,” Patel said. “He was a 40-year-old man. He knew what he was doing. He went his own way. What can we say?

Jayesh Chaudhary, a family friend from the village, said in a Hindi interview that the Patels have quieted down since the deaths.

The family has returned to their traditional occupation of farming, he said.

“There is sadness.”

Almost every Dingucha household has someone living in Canada, the US, the UK or Australia, he said.

Chaudhary said police officers have been regularly seen in the village speaking to people since the deaths.

Anil Pratham, a senior Gujarat police officer, was involved in investigating the case from January 2022 to September.

Pratham said “a lot of people” want to go to a Western country with the expectation of a better life, financial security and may be willing to break the law to get it.

He said investigators spoke to people who had been questioned about crimes involving fake IDs in the past.

“We had to try to figure out if they had any role (in the case),” he said. “Clearly nothing came out for those involved (in the investigation), but we saw the process … what documents were used.”

The first step to coming to Canada would involve enrolling in a college or finding a job, Pratham said.

“Sometimes in this place they show false documents for registration or for a job,” he said, noting that their intent may be to enter the United States.

During his investigation, he said, officials were pursuing the case of a man who forged documents so he could enter the United States on a student visa.

“He didn’t qualify for college admission,” Pratham said. “His intention was not to study, not to do the job, but something else.”

What surprised him most about the investigation was how far people would go to exploit loopholes in the system, he said.

Manitoba RCMP said earlier this week that they had no news on the case.

Nearly a year after her death, Patel said he’s still being asked about the final hours of his son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

“We are here. We don’t have all the details,” he said. “How are we supposed to know what really happened?”

In February last year, US officials said a 47-year-old Florida resident was indicted by a federal grand jury on two counts of human smuggling.

Steve Anthony Shand has been identified as the driver of a white van near the US-Canada border carrying undocumented Indian nationals. He was apprehended on January 19, 2022 south of the border, officials said.

Five others from India were spotted in the snow shortly after walking towards the van. They told border officials they walked for more than 11 hours in the freezing cold and that four others were separated from the group overnight.

A man in the group also said he paid a large sum of money to get a fake student visa in Canada and was expecting a ride to a relative’s home in Chicago after crossing the border, US officials said at the time.

Ajamal Thakor, a friend of the Patel family who lives in Dingucha, said the parents suffered a great loss.

“It’s not easy to watch your children die,” he said in Hindi.

One of the family members arranged a breakfast at the local school to mark the almost one-year anniversary of his death, he said.

“It’s an Indian custom.”

Chaudhary said most in the close-knit community are trying to move forward.

“For most, it’s just a memory.”

But Patel said memories of his son are filled with despair and concern for the future.

His son is said to have found a job in the United States and to help his parents financially in old age, he said.

“Now we’re just…”

He stopped.

“We have a lot, a lot, a lot of pain.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on January 15, 2023.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

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