A year-long investigation by federal officials has revealed an elaborate "human smuggling network" that may have helped close to a thousand Chinese migrants crossing the border between Canada and the US through a public park just a few steps from a bustling center recovery. gateway, according to recently withdrawn court documents obtained by the National Post.
An important part of the scheme is that Chinese citizens fly to the United States with valid travel visas, go to Seattle and then are dropped off by members of the network in or near Peace Park – a 16-hectare park that crosses the international border. border between Surrey, BC, and Blaine, Wash.
An e-mail for suspected border jumpers, discovered during the investigation and translated from Chinese, instructed them to "smile" and "be natural" by walking through the park and pretending to take photos. "If anyone questions, the answer is: (I am) just a tourist … I do not go to Canada," he said.
There are no physical barriers in the park that prevent transit between countries, and Post's questions to Canadian security agencies have revealed some disagreement over which one is actually responsible for preventing illegal border crossing through Peace Arch Park.
The investigation culminated last September with the arrest of Michael Kong, 62, of Vancouver. Kong, a former sawmill worker, was charged under section 117 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act with seven counts of trafficking in human beings between 2014 and 2015 involving 34 migrants, some of them children. Kong's adult son, Matthew, was also arrested last year and faces minor charges under the same act. Both men pleaded not guilty and none of the charges were proven in court.
The court records suggest that the scope of the alleged enterprise was much larger. Accounting books – or "scoring sheets" – found on a computer in Kong's house listed the names of more than 900 foreigners who would have been smuggled between 2011 and 2016, according to a sworn statement from a researcher at the Border Services Agency from Canada. About one-third of the listed people registered requests for refuge in Canada, mostly in a single government office in Etobicoke, a suburb of Toronto. Some were smuggled into the United States. The whereabouts of others is not known.
Kong, who has been denied bail and remains in custody, has a landmark trial in the Richmond provincial court next month. His son, who is not in custody, is due back in Surrey province in October.
Given the opportunity to address the allegations, Shelley Sugarman, Michael Kong's lawyer, said she was not allowed by her client to speak. Tony Paisana, a lawyer for Matthew Kong, declined to comment, as the matter is still in court.
Officials at the border did not disclose Kong's arrest on September 18, 2018; the Post became aware of this after receiving a tip. During a two-day bail hearing that month, Kong, a thin, gray-haired man, sat forward and listened intently to Crown Prosecutor Charles Hough to summarize the case. The ban on publication, however, prevents this document from reporting.
In an effort to learn more, the Post filed a petition in BC. Last fall, the Supreme Court tried to disclose documents, known as requests for information, which CBSA investigators presented in support of more than a dozen search warrants , search warrants and production orders linked to the case. Last week, a judge agreed to release hundreds of pages of records. This story is based on these and other court records as well as immigration documents.
Nestled between the ports of entry of the US and Canada, Peace Arch Park, with its lawns and colorful flower beds, is sometimes called "no man's land." As long as they remain inside the park, visitors are free to walk back. They cross the international border without a passport and are often seen taking photos through the centerpiece of the park, a 20-meter high monument, a square-shaped concrete arch painted in pure white that is a symbol of peace and close relations between the two countries. On sunny days, the park is a popular picnic destination and offers panoramic views of Semiahmoo Bay to the west.
Those who come from the US and want to avoid crossing the port of entry can leave the park in various directions – in a residential neighborhood to the east, to the west coast, and to a parking lot in the duty-free shop to the north.
CBSA investigators were skeptical in 2012 when an analysis of refugee claims made by Chinese migrants in offices inside revealed a pattern of claimants who said they had entered Canada via Peace Arch Park. At the end of that year, the agency officially started an investigation called Project Interpretation.
According to the Public Safety Canada website, human smuggling "undermines Canada's security."
"By charging people large amounts of money for their transportation, human smugglers have been doing a lucrative business by facilitating illegal migration, generally advising smugglers to seek asylum in the country to which they are smuggled, "the site says.
The Canadian Council for Refugees has a more subtle view. While smuggling of people can be a "nasty business" that routinely deceives people into thousands of dollars and can result in people being detained and deported back home, it has also been "life-giving" to those fleeing persecution, says the site.
Authorities identified Kong and his son as "people of interest" at the beginning of the investigation, having Kong known a few years earlier.
On June 13, 2010, the border crossing of the Peace Arch was temporarily closed to accommodate a "Crossed Hands on the Border" event, where girls and boy scouts from both countries gather in the park to celebrate the friendship between the two countries.
A US border officer on duty that day saw Kong and two other people – who were Mexican citizens – stepped out of a parking lot on the American side of the Peace Arch Park to the Canadian side and alerted the Canadian authorities.
As the trio walked around the park, Kong spotted a uniformed CBSA officer and separated from the other two men, joining a list of ice creams, according to a statement of fact. Kong was arrested for not showing up for examination when crossing the border. At the time of his arrest, he was taking $ 10,000 in cash.
Three years earlier, Kong had been fired from the sawmill where he had worked for three decades, according to the court. He received a four-month probation, a $ 1,000 fine, and 25 hours of community service.
Kong had another meeting with officials at Peace Arch Park on July 13, 2013. On that day, Kong parked a Honda Odyssey minivan on the Canadian side of the park, according to court records. His wife, Carmen, arrived in a separate vehicle.
The two then crossed the park's central lawn. Kong wore a red cap – significant, wrote one investigator later, because it helped him to "be identified by individuals with whom he is trying to find himself."
Meanwhile, three Asian women near a set of restrooms on the American side of the park began to walk toward Canada. The women and the kong converged near a gazebo when they reached Kong's van. One of the women took photos along the way.
They did not get far; Border agents intercepted them before they could leave.
At a detention hearing a few days later, the Immigration and Refugee Board heard that one of the women had been deported from Canada the year before. She was deported a second time.
The other two filed applications for refugees. One of them, Ziqing Chen, who was a minor at the time, told authorities that her parents had arranged for her to be taken to Canada for an education. His parents paid $ 20,000 to their smugglers.
According to a copy of his refugee claim, Chen wrote that a "snake head made arrangements for me to leave China safely." She arrived in San Francisco on July 9, 2013. "I did not apply for asylum because Snakehead suggested that I come to Canada to have a better chance of winning my claim. "The records indicate that she was married in 2017 and that her husband applied to sponsor her for citizenship.
Kong finally pleaded guilty to an indictment of helping or encouraging someone to enter Canada without attending the examination. During the ruling, the Crown Prosecutor noted that the case "attacks the heart of Canada's critical ability to effectively govern its borders."
Kong's wife and children presented character references to the judge, describing Kong as the "greatest husband" and a "model father" who had committed a "great mistake committed in a moment of weakness."
"I witnessed the long hours that Dad used to work every day, keeping a full shift at the sawmill in the morning and taking care of a second job as a delivery man at a Chinese restaurant that evening," wrote his daughter, Louisa.
His son, Matthew, wrote that the family sat down for a discussion.
"He's ashamed of himself and you can be sure that we'll never let it happen again."
The judge ruled a three-month prison sentence, noting that there was no suggestion that Kong was part of a larger criminal enterprise.
"It seems to be a family business."
But the ongoing CBSA investigation would find otherwise, according to court documents released last week.
"Kong continued to organize and help foreigners illegally enter Canada. His tactics and routines changed and developed over time and he employed others to help him, "wrote one researcher.
On January 19, 2014, a CBSA surveillance team intercepted five Chinese citizens – a family of four and a single woman – who had walked from the North American side of Peace Arch Park to the Canadian side.
Border officials arrested a Canadian woman, Yu Lian Zheng, on suspicion of helping a group with illegal entry. The investigators determined that she had abandoned the group and then crossed the port of entry with the intention of joining them at the resort on the Canadian side.
On July 2, 2014, Zheng was arrested again after a surveillance team saw her leading an Asian man and two young Asian children from the bathrooms on the American side of Peace Arch Park to his car, which was parked on a residential street in Canadian side.
Zheng pleaded guilty to five counts of aid and complicity in the two incidents and was sentenced to six months in prison. In an interview with the researchers, she said she faced financial pressures. She said she received $ 300 each time and received her instructions by phone from a woman named "Jenny," whose phone number was constantly changing.
A search on Zheng's phone also revealed that she had contact with Kong and had exchanged four phone calls with him on the day of her second arrest.
Authorities were granted permission to install a tracking device on Kong Honda's Odyssey van. On June 13, 2015, a surveillance team followed the van to the Peace Portal Golf Club area, located about a mile from Peace Arch Park. There, several people got out of a Honda Civic and got into their van, the researchers said.
The team followed the van to Parker Place, an Asian mall in Richmond, where the group dined, and later the researchers learned where the plane tickets were purchased. The group then drove to Vancouver International Airport, where Kong printed boarding passes for the group, which consisted of three men, three women and three children. None of them carried luggage, the researchers observed.
A CBSA investigator later interviewed a woman in the group after she filed a request for a refuge in Etobicoke, Ont. She confirmed that they were dropped off near the bathrooms on the North American side of Peace Arch Park and entered Canada. She identified Kong as the man to whom she paid $ 500 for a plane ticket to Toronto.
On June 19, 2015, the tracking device in Kong van showed that it was again in the vicinity of Peace Arch Park. So was the Honda Civic. They joined a Lexus driven by Kong's son.
Matthew Kong and a woman, identified as his girlfriend, walked to the US toilets, the researchers said. When they reappeared, they were followed by an Asian man and two Asian women. They walked back to the Canadian side and left the park through an opening in some hedges and on a street where the Civic was waiting to catch the trio. The authorities pulled us out shortly afterwards.
"(The driver) stated that he was approached by a young woman who said she had a stomach ache and asked him to take her to medical help," wrote an investigator. "(He) said he did not know her, but … he thought he was doing a good thing by being a good Samaritan."
Halted later in downtown Vancouver, Matthew Kong and his girlfriend admitted to being in the park, but denied having helped people across the border.
However, one of the migrants told investigators a different story. She confirmed that she and a couple were dropped off on the American side and told to walk towards the restrooms where help would be waiting. When the trio entered the Civic, the driver said nothing. But when they were stopped, he uttered something with the effect of "Uh-oh. We're in trouble. "
One of the migrants had a Chinese text message that said, "The one Mr. Kong said should go on the 19th (Friday)." Civic driver phone records showed a call early that day with Kong as well .
Testimony presented by investigators suggests that, as the authorities stepped up their surveillance of the Peace Arch Park, smuggling activity moved further east along the border.
On January 28, 2016, surveillance cameras on the American side of the border near Lynden, Washington – about 20 miles east of the Peace Arch crossing – captured a Ford F-150 pickup that left three people crossing Canada.
US officials have notified their Canadian counterparts that they stopped the driver after he returned to Canada. The driver told investigators he had responded to an ad on Vansky, a Chinese site. He said he picked up the trio at the Tulalip casino in Washington and was supposed to get $ 600 for the job.
The person who placed the ad was "Jenny," he said. A text message on her phone said Jenny had an average of 20 or more customers a month. Jenny was the one who paid all the drivers and had a boss whose surname was Jiang, he said.
"Jiang," noted the researchers, "is the Mandarin pronunciation of the Cantonese name" Kong. "
In constructing their case, the investigators relied on items they seized from recycling bins and containers in Kong's alley. In September 2015, researchers discovered airline itineraries issued by M & # 26; s Travel agency at Parker Place and the names of 54 people who traveled between Vancouver and Toronto, including the nine people transported to the airport on June 13, 2015 , the court records say. .
When these names were entered into a federal database – the Global Case Management System – they found that 52 of the 54 had filed for refuge requests in Etobicoke, Ont. It is unclear why so many chose to file claims there.
An M & E Travel official told the Post last week that he did not usually work out of the office and did not recognize Kong's name or photo. He said the manager was out of town. The manager did not respond to the email query sent by the Post.
Investigators also obtained security footage from Vancouver International Airport for several days in 2015, showing Kong in the company of travelers who were later confirmed as filing applications for refuge.
One of these travelers told investigators she and her son had entered Canada walking through Peace Arch Park. She said she paid the trafficker $ 5,100 in cash – $ 2,000 each to enter the country and $ 550 each for airplane tickets.
These dollar values suggest a lucrative scheme. Investigators say that when Kong and his wife were laid aside for questioning at Vancouver Airport in December 2015 after a trip to China, Kong stated that he was a renovator and that she was a housewife and her combined income was $ 25,000 per year. He mentioned that they also had savings on the sale of a property.
Property records obtained by the National Post last year, however, showed that Kong and his wife owned at least six properties in Vancouver valued at about $ 11 million.
On a busy day at Peace Arch Park, it may be "ridiculously easy" for someone to cross the border undetected, said Jean-Pierre Fortin, president of the union representing the country's border officers. The only real impediment, he said, is a US border patrol vehicle that is usually parked on the American side of public space.
Jason Givens, a spokesman for US Customs and Border Protection, said the Border Patrol maintains a presence in the parking lot to "prevent people from entering the United States illegally and arresting people who enter the United States illegally."
Givens added, "If the Border Patrol identifies someone illegally entering Canada, they will notify the Canadian authorities."
When the Post tried to determine who on the Canadian side was responsible for the park's daily patrol, the authorities did not seem to agree.
In an e-mail, CBSA spokeswoman Kathy Liu said it is the RCMP, not the CBSA, responsible for monitoring areas between designated ports of entry.
"Peace Arch Park is located … outside the mandate of the Agency," she wrote.
Liu added, "If local law enforcement agencies intercept an individual between ports of entry, the person will be taken to a CBSA office for processing."
However, the sergeant. Janelle Shoihet, a spokeswoman for BC RCMP headquarters, told the Post that Peace Arch Park is "a collaborative and layered responsibility that is patrolled in partnership with the CBSA, the Surrey RCMP and a Federal RCMP Unit dedicated to security of borders ".
"I'd like to encourage you to check with CBSA and Surrey RCMP, as they may have more to add."
Cpl. Elenore Sturko, a Surrey RCMP spokeswoman, said that while her detachment responds to requests for service in the Peace Arch Park, responsibility for border enforcement in the park falls on the CBSA or the RCMP's organized and criminal unit, which proactively patrols the border."
Curious how so many people managed to cross the border undetected, the Post spent a Saturday afternoon in the park last fall.
Around 2.30 p.m., standing near the Arch of Peace monument, the Post observed a young man talking on a cell phone, across the wide lawn on the Canadian side of the park to the American side toward the restrooms.
Shortly thereafter, four people who appeared to be a family – one man, one woman and two children – appeared near the restrooms.
The man on the cell phone led the quartet across the lawn to the Canadian side of the border – but away from the Canadian port of entry – always walking several paces ahead.
It took an unusual turn – leading the quartet north along the traffic lanes on the south edge of the park, then west across a set of train tracks and down a landfill to the coast.
After spending a few more minutes on his phone, the man left the quartet and returned to his car in a parking lot near Canada's duty-free shop. The quartet then began a long walk north along the beach, reaching the community of White Rock, about three miles away.
When the Post went to White Rock, it lost sight of the family, but saw the same man on the cell phone, sitting in his car, not far from the coast.
The Post can not say for sure if the quartet originated in the United States – in which case they clearly escaped from Canada's port of entry – or whether they were Canadians who decided they wanted to take a long walk. O The CBSA did not comment specifically on what the Post observed or the frequency of potential human smuggling activity through the park. The RCMP said could not determine whether the people observed by the Post had made an unauthorized entry into Canada.
During the Post's visit to Peace Arch Park, a US Border Patrol vehicle was visible in a parking lot on the American side of the park. However, no law-like presence was visible on the Canadian side.
CBSA investigators executed a warrant at Michael Kong's family home on July 12, 2016. Investigators found $ 119,000 in cash in an office.
Another thing that caught their eye was a spreadsheet – or "scoring sheet" – on a computer. The title of the document, in Chinese characters, read "America Canada Travel".
It contained an ongoing record of suspected smuggling incidents since 2011, including names of foreign nationals, accomplices of the alleged scheme, dates, and phone numbers.
In total, the investigators counted 932 individuals who they believe were smuggled across the border between 2011 and 2016.
When these names were run through the federal database, 343 were found to enter Canada with 330 of them making requests for refugees – mostly in Etobicoke, but some in B.C. Seven entered the United States. The remaining 602 could not be accounted for.
"If the individual is smuggled into Canada and never presents to introduce himself, the CBSA has no idea they exist and they are in Canada living underground for some reason," one researcher wrote.
During the search of Kong's house, several immigration documents were discovered, as well as a business card describing Kong as a "refugee consultant."
Kong told investigators he was helping people with permanent residency extensions and other immigration applications, but acknowledged that he was not a licensed or registered consultant.
Kong insisted that he had stopped smuggling people after his arrest in 2013.
When he came across evidence of the alleged smuggling incident on June 13, 2015 involving the group of nine, "he admitted he was afraid to go to the border for someone else to collect," one researcher wrote.
"When Michael Kong was asked extensively about the occasions when he was observed by the CBSA assisting individuals after they crossed the border illegally in 2015/16, he refused to answer the questions."
However, a search on Kong's cell phone suggested he was still very much in the game. Investigators quoted a text message between Kong and a suspected associate of just a few days earlier.
"The situation has changed and you can not walk," the message said. "It has to be from car to car, but it involves many bodies. There is still some risk, the price has to be increased, in cash 3500 for one and 1000 deposit in advance. Balance paid after arriving here. No refund of deposit if they change their mind in the middle.