Alleged human-smuggling scheme may have helped hundreds cross through Peace Arch Park

Peace Arch park straddles two nations with one goal

Peace Arch State Park in Blaine actually consists of two parks in two countries, straddling the U.S.-Canada border. The park's iconic white monument is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Up Next
Peace Arch State Park in Blaine actually consists of two parks in two countries, straddling the U.S.-Canada border. The park's iconic white monument is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A years-long investigation by federal authorities has uncovered an elaborate “human smuggling network” that may have helped close to a thousand Chinese migrants cross the Canada-U.S. border via a public park just steps away from a busy B.C. port of entry, according to newly unsealed court documents obtained by the National Post.

A major part of the scheme saw Chinese nationals fly to the United States on valid travel visas, make their way to Seattle and then get dropped off by members of the network at or near Peace Arch Park — a 16-hectare park that straddles the international border between Surrey, B.C., and Blaine.

An email to would-be border jumpers, uncovered during the investigation and translated from Chinese, instructed them to “smile” and “be natural” when walking through the park and to pretend to take pictures. “If someone questions, the answer is, (I’m) only tourist … not going to Canada,” it said.

There are no physical barriers in the park preventing transit between countries, and the Post’s queries to Canadian law enforcement agencies revealed some disagreement about which of them is actually responsible for preventing unlawful 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 related to human smuggling between 2014 and 2015 involving 34 migrants, some of them children. Kong’s adult son, Matthew, was also arrested last year and faces lesser charges under the same act. Both men have pleaded not guilty and none of the charges have been proven in court.

Court records suggest the scope of the alleged enterprise was much larger. Accounting ledgers — or “score sheets” — found on a computer in Kong’s home listed the names of more than 900 foreign nationals believed to have been smuggled between 2011 and 2016, according to an affidavit sworn by a Canada Border Services Agency investigator.

About one-third of those listed were found to have filed refugee claims in Canada, mostly at a single government office in Etobicoke, a suburb of Toronto. A few were smuggled into the U.S. The whereabouts of the others is not known.

Carmen Kong and Matthew Kong leave Richmond Provincial Court in Richmond, B.C. Thursday, October 11, 2018. The pair were in court to support their husband and father Michael Kong, 61, in what turned out to be an unsuccessful bid for bail. Kong is accused of multiple human smuggling offenses. Jason Payne PNG

Kong, who was denied bail and remains in custody, has a trial scheduled in Richmond provincial court next month. His son, who is not in custody, is due back in Surrey provincial court in October.

Given an opportunity to address the allegations, Shelley Sugarman, Michael Kong’s lawyer, said she didn’t have permission from her client to speak. Tony Paisana, Matthew Kong’s lawyer, declined to comment given the matter is still before the courts.

Border officials did not publicize Kong’s Sept. 18, 2018, arrest; the Post became aware of it after receiving a tip. During a two-day bail hearing that month, Kong, a slight man with thinning grey hair, sat hunched forward and listened attentively as federal Crown prosecutor Charles Hough laid out a summary of the case. A publication ban, however, prevents this paper from reporting on it.

n an effort to learn more, the Post filed a petition in B.C. Supreme Court last fall seeking to unseal documents, known as information-to-obtain applications, which CBSA investigators submitted in support of more than a dozen search warrants, tracking warrants and production orders connected to the case. Last week, a judge agreed to release hundreds of pages of records. This story is based on those and other court records, as well as immigration documents.

Whatcom County has 5 border crossings into Canada, including one of the busiest in the U.S. If you're traveling to British Columbia, here's what you need to know.

‘No man’s land’

Nestled between the U.S. and Canadian ports of entry, Peace Arch Park, with its manicured lawns and colorful flowerbeds, is sometimes referred to as a “no man’s land.” As long as they stay within the park, visitors are free to walk back and forth across the international boundary without a passport and are often seen snapping pictures by the park’s centerpiece, a 20-meter tall, concrete square-arch monument 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 destination for picnickers and offers unobstructed views of Semiahmoo Bay to the west.

Those coming from the U.S. and looking to avoid going through the port of entry can exit the park in several directions — into a residential neighborhood to the east, to the shoreline to the west, and to a parking lot by the duty-free store to the north.

CBSA investigators became suspicious in 2012 when a review of refugee claims that had been filed by Chinese migrants at inland offices revealed a pattern of claimants who said they had entered Canada via Peace Arch Park. At the end of that year, the agency officially began an investigation dubbed Project Interpretation.

According to Public Safety Canada’s website, human smuggling “undermines Canada’s security.”

“By charging people large sums of money for their transportation, human smugglers have made a lucrative business out of facilitating illegal migration, often by counseling smuggled persons to claim asylum in the country to which they are smuggled,” the website says.

The Canadian Council for Refugees takes a more nuanced view. While people smuggling can be a “nasty business” that routinely cheats people out of thousands of dollars and can result in people being detained and deported back home, it has also been “life-giving” to those fleeing persecution, the council’s website says.

Authorities identified Kong and his son as “persons of interest” early on in the investigation, Kong having become known to them a couple of years earlier.

On June 13, 2010, the Peace Arch border crossing had been temporarily closed to accommodate a “Hands Across the Border” event wherein Girl Guides and Boy Scouts from both countries gather at the park to celebrate the friendship between the two countries.

A U.S. border officer on duty that day spotted Kong and two other individuals — who turned out to be Mexican nationals — walk from a parking lot on the American side of Peace Arch Park to the Canadian side, and alerted Canadian authorities.

As the trio walked along the outskirts of the park, Kong saw a uniformed CBSA officer and split off from the other two men, joining a lineup for ice cream, according to an agreed statement of facts. Kong was arrested for failing to appear for examination when crossing the border. At the time of his arrest he was carrying $10,000 in cash.

Three years earlier, Kong had been laid off from the sawmill he had worked at for three decades, court heard. He was given a four-month conditional sentence, a $1,000 fine and 25 hours of community service.

Kong had another run-in with the authorities at Peace Arch Park on July 13, 2013. 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 made their way across the park’s central lawn. Kong wore a red cap — significant, an investigator later wrote, because it helped him “to be identified by individuals he is trying to meet up with.”

Meanwhile, three Asian women near a set of washrooms on the American side of the park began walking towards Canada. The women and the Kongs converged near a gazebo, at which point they headed for Kong’s van. One of the women snapped pictures along the way.

They didn’t get far; border officers intercepted them before they could drive off.

At a detention review hearing a few days later, the Immigration and Refugee Board heard that one of the women had been deported from Canada the preceding year. She was deported a second time.

The other two filed refugee claims. One of them, Ziqing Chen, who was a minor at the time, told authorities her parents had arranged for her to be brought to Canada for an education. Her parents had paid $20,000 to her smugglers.

According to a copy of her refugee claim, Chen wrote that a “snakehead made arrangements for me to leave China safely.” She arrived in San Francisco on July 9, 2013. “I did not apply for asylum (in the U.S.) because the snakehead suggested that I should come to Canada in order to have a better chance to win my claim.” Records indicate she got married in 2017 and that her husband had applied to sponsor her for citizenship.

Kong ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of aiding or abetting someone to enter Canada without appearing for examination. During sentencing, the Crown prosecutor noted the case “strikes at the heart of Canada’s critical ability to be able to govern its borders effectively.”

Kong’s wife and children submitted character references to the judge, describing Kong as the “greatest husband” and a “model father” who had made a “great mistake made in a moment of weakness.”

“I have witnessed the long hours father used to work each day, maintaining a full shift at the sawmill in the morning and attending to a second job as a delivery person at a Chinese restaurant at night,” wrote his daughter, Louisa.

His son, Matthew, wrote that the family had sat down for a discussion.

“He is ashamed of himself and you can rest assured that we will never let this happen again.”

The judge decided on a three-month jail sentence, noting there was no suggestion Kong was part of a larger criminal venture.

“It appears to be somewhat of a family business.”

But the CBSA’s ongoing investigation would find otherwise, according to the court documents unsealed last week.

“Kong continued organizing and assisting foreign nationals with entering Canada illegally. His tactics and routines changed and developed over time and he has employed others to assist him,” an investigator wrote.

Though regularly under surveillance by U.S. Border Patrol agents and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, a solitary ditch north of Lynden, Washington is tempting to people trying to cross the border illegally.

‘Uh-oh. We’re in trouble’

On Jan. 19, 2014, a CBSA surveillance team intercepted five Chinese nationals — a family of four and a single woman — who had walked from the U.S. side of Peace Arch Park to the Canadian side.

Border authorities arrested a Canadian woman, Yu Lian Zheng, on suspicion of helping a group with illegal entry. Investigators determined she had earlier dropped off the group and then drove through the port of entry intending to rejoin them at the tourist center on the Canadian side.

On July 2, 2014, Zheng was arrested again after a surveillance team spotted her guiding an Asian man and two young Asian children from the washrooms on the U.S. side of Peace Arch Park to her car, which was parked on a residential side street on the Canadian side.

Zheng pleaded guilty to five counts of aiding and abetting from the two incidents and was sentenced to six months in jail. In an interview with investigators, she said she had faced financial pressures. She said she got paid $300 each time and received her instructions over the phone from a woman named “Jenny” whose phone number constantly changed.

A search of Zheng’s phone also revealed that she had contact with Kong and had exchanged four calls with him the day of her second arrest.

Authorities secured permission to install a tracking device on Kong’s Honda Odyssey van. On June 13, 2015, a surveillance team followed the van to the area of the Peace Portal Golf Club, located about a kilometer from Peace Arch Park. There, several people got out of a Honda Civic and into his van, investigators wrote.

The team followed the van to Parker Place, an Asian shopping mall in Richmond, B.C., where the group had dinner and, investigators would later learn, where plane tickets were purchased. The group then drove to Vancouver International Airport where Kong printed out boarding passes for the group, which consisted of three men, three women and three children.

“None of the group carried any luggage with them,” investigators noted.

A CBSA investigator later interviewed a woman from the group after she filed a refugee claim in Etobicoke, Ont. She confirmed they had been dropped off near the washrooms on the U.S. side of Peace Arch Park and had walked into Canada. She identified Kong as the man to whom she had paid $500 for a plane ticket to Toronto.

On June 19, 2015, the tracking device on Kong’s van showed it was again in the vicinity of Peace Arch Park. So was the Honda Civic. They were joined by a Lexus driven by Kong’s son.

Matthew Kong and a woman, identified as his girlfriend, walked to the washrooms on the U.S. side, investigators said. When they re-appeared, they were followed by an Asian man and two Asian women. They walked back to the Canadian side and exited the park through an opening in some hedges and onto a street where the Civic was waiting to pick the trio up. Authorities pulled them over a short time later.

“(The driver) stated he was approached by a young female who said she had a stomach ache and asked him to take her for medical help,” an investigator wrote. “(He) said he didn’t know her but … thought he was doing a good thing by being a Good Samaritan.”

Stopped later in downtown Vancouver, Matthew Kong and his girlfriend admitted to having been in the park but denied helping people across the border.

However, one of the migrants told investigators a different story. She confirmed that she and a married couple had been dropped off on the U.S. side and told to walk in the direction of the washrooms where help would be waiting. When the trio got into the Civic, the driver didn’t say anything. But when they were pulled over, he uttered something to the effect of, “Uh-oh. We’re in trouble.”

One of the migrants had a text message in Chinese that read: “That Mr. Kong said suppose to go on the 19th (Friday).” The Civic driver’s phone records showed a call earlier that day with Kong as well.

Affidavits filed by investigators suggest that as authorities intensified their surveillance of Peace Arch Park, the smuggling activity moved further east along the border.

On Jan. 28, 2016, surveillance cameras on the U.S. side of the border near Lynden, Wash. — about 20 kilometers east of the Peace Arch crossing — captured a Ford F-150 pickup dropping off three people who then crossed into Canada.

U.S. authorities notified their Canadian counterparts who stopped the driver after he returned to Canada. The driver told investigators he had responded to an ad in Vansky, a Chinese-language website. He said he picked up the trio at the Tulalip casino and was to be paid $600 for the job.

The person who placed the ad was “Jenny,” he said. A text message on his phone stated that Jenny averaged 20 or more customers a month. Jenny was the one who paid all the drivers and had a boss whose last name was Jiang, he said.

“Jiang,” investigators noted, “is the Mandarin pronunciation of the Cantonese name “Kong.”

0209 snow3
Visitors from both sides of the U.S.-Canada border enjoy the Peace Arch Park in the snow and sunshine Monday, Feb. 7, 2017. A federal investigation uncovered a human smuggling network that may have helped nearly 1,000 Chinese migrants cross the Canada-U.S. border via the Peace Arch Park that straddles the border near Blaine. Philip A. Dwyer

A lucrative scheme

In building their case, investigators relied on items they seized from garbage and recycling bins in Kong’s alleyway. In September 2015, investigators uncovered airline itineraries issued by M’s Travel agency at Parker Place mall and the names of 54 people who had traveled between Vancouver and Toronto, including the nine people Kong had transported to the airport on June 13, 2015, court records say.

When those names were entered into a federal database — the Global Case Management System — they learned that 52 out of the 54 had filed refugee claims in Etobicoke, Ont. It is not clear why so many chose to file claims there.

An employee at M’s Travel told the Post last weekend he didn’t normally work out of that office and didn’t recognize Kong’s name or picture. He said the manager was out of town. The manager did not respond to the Post’s emailed inquiry.

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 to have filed refugee claims.

One of those travelers told investigators she and her son had entered Canada by walking across Peace Arch Park. She said she paid her smuggler $5,100 cash — $2,000 each for getting into the country and $550 each for the airplane tickets.

Those dollar amounts suggest a lucrative scheme. Investigators say that when Kong and his wife were pulled aside for questioning at Vancouver’s airport in December 2015 following a trip to China, Kong stated that he was a renovator and that she was a housewife and their combined income was $25,000 a year. He mentioned they also had savings from the sale of a property.

Property records obtained by the National Post last fall, however, showed that Kong and his wife owned at least six properties across Vancouver valued at about $11 million.

The Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine, Washington. A federal investigation uncovered a human smuggling network that may have helped nearly 1,000 Chinese migrants cross the Canada-U.S. border via the Peace Arch Park that straddles the border near Blaine. Philip A. Dwyer

‘Ridiculously easy’

On a busy day at Peace Arch Park, it can 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 deterrent, he said, is a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle that’s usually parked on the American side of the public space.

Jason Givens, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman, said the border patrol maintains a presence in the parking lot to “deter people from illegally entering the United States and to apprehend people who illegally enter the United States.”

Givens added: “If Border Patrol spots someone illegally entering Canada, they will notify Canadian authorities.”

When the Post tried to determine who on the Canadian side was responsible for the day-to-day patrolling of the park, the authorities couldn’t seem to agree.

In an email, CBSA spokeswoman Kathy Liu said it’s the RCMP, not CBSA, that is responsible for monitoring areas between designated ports of entry.

“The Peace Arch Park is located … outside of the Agency’s mandate,” she wrote.

Liu added: “Should local law enforcement agencies intercept an individual in between ports of entry, the person is then brought to a CBSA office for processing.”

However, Sgt. Janelle Shoihet, a spokeswoman at B.C. RCMP headquarters, told the Post that Peace Arch Park is “a collaborative, layered responsibility that is patrolled in partnership with CBSA, the Surrey RCMP and an RCMP Federal Unit, dedicated to border security.”

“I would encourage you to check in with both CBSA and the Surrey RCMP as they may have more to add.”

Cpl. Elenore Sturko, a spokeswoman for the Surrey RCMP, said while her detachment responds to calls for service at Peace Arch Park, the responsibility of border enforcement at the park falls with CBSA or the federal RCMP’s serious and organized crime unit “who pro-actively patrol the border.”

Curious how so many people could have made it across the border without being detected, the Post spent a Saturday afternoon at the park last fall.

At around 2:30 p.m., while standing near the Peace Arch monument, the Post observed a young man talking on a cell phone walk across the expansive lawn from the Canadian side of the park to the U.S. side in the direction of the washrooms.

A short time later, four people who appeared to be a family — a man, woman and two children — appeared near the washrooms.

The man with the cell phone led the foursome across the lawn back to the Canadian side of the border — but away from the Canadian port of entry — always walking several paces ahead.

He took an unusual route — leading the foursome north along the southbound lanes of traffic at the park’s edge, then west across a set of railroad tracks and down an embankment to the shoreline.

After spending a few minutes longer on his phone, the man left the foursome and returned to his car in a parking lot near the Canadian duty free store. The foursome then started a long walk north along the beach, making it all the way to the community of White Rock, about three kilometers away.

When the Post drove to White Rock, it lost sight of the family but did spot the same man on the cell phone sitting in his car not far from the shoreline.

The Post cannot say for certain whether the foursome originated from the United States — in which case they had clearly evaded the Canadian port of entry — or whether they were Canadians who had decided they wanted to go for a long walk. The CBSA would not comment specifically on what the Post observed or the frequency of potential human smuggling activity through the park. The RCMP said it could not make a determination as to whether people observed by the Post had made an unauthorized entry in to Canada.

During the Post’s visit to Peace Arch Park, a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle was visible in a parking lot on the American side of the park. However, no similar law enforcement presence was visible on the Canadian side.

Canadian cars head to the U.S. at the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine. A federal investigation uncovered a human smuggling network that may have helped nearly 1,000 Chinese migrants cross the Canada-U.S. border via the Peace Arch Park that straddles the border near Blaine. Philip A. Dwyer The Bellingham Herald file

‘CBSA has no idea they even exist’

CBSA investigators executed a warrant at Michael Kong’s family home on July 12, 2016. Investigators found $119,000 cash stashed away in an office.

Another thing that caught their attention was a spreadsheet — or “score sheet” — on a computer. The title of the document, in Chinese characters, said “America Canada Travel.”

It contained a running log of suspected smuggling incidents dating back to 2011, including names of foreign nationals, accomplices in the alleged scheme, dates, and phone numbers.

All told, investigators counted 932 individuals who they believe were smuggled across the border between 2011 and 2016.

When those names were run through the federal database, 343 were found to have entered Canada with 330 of them making refugee claims — mostly in Etobicoke, but a few in B.C. Seven had entered the U.S. The remaining 602 could not be accounted for.

“If the individual gets smuggled into Canada and never comes forward to present themselves, CBSA has no idea they even exist and they are in Canada living underground for some reason,” an investigator wrote.

During the search of Kong’s house, a number of immigration documents were uncovered, as well as a business card describing Kong as a “refugee consultant.”

Kong told investigators he had been helping people with permanent residency extensions and other immigration applications but acknowledged he was not a licensed or registered consultant.

Kong insisted he had stopped smuggling people after his arrest in 2013.

When presented with evidence from the alleged June 13, 2015, smuggling incident involving the group of nine, “he admitted that he was scared to go down to the border so someone else did the pick up,” an investigator wrote.

“When Michael Kong was questioned extensively regarding times he was observed by CBSA assisting individuals after they crossed the border illegally in 2015/16 he refused to answer the questions.”

However, a search of Kong’s cell phone suggested he was still very much in the game. Investigators cited one text message between Kong and an alleged associate from just a few days earlier.

“The situation has changed and can’t cross on foot,” the message said. “It has to be from car to car but it involves a lot of bodies. There are still some risk, the price has to be raised, cash 3,500 per one and deposit 1,000 up front. Balance paid after arrived here. No refund of deposit if they change their mind in between.”

Used with permission from Post Media.