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Ontario man smuggled people from India to U.S., through Calgary, Toronto, Montreal

An Indian national from Brampton, Ont., pleaded guilty in Albany, NY, federal court Friday to human smuggling as part of a network that potentially moved hundreds of people from India across the Canada-U.S. border.

An Indian national who lived in Brampton, Ont., pleaded guilty to 9 counts of alien smuggling in U.S. court

Ontario man pleads guilty to human smuggling charges in U.S. court

5 hours ago

Duration 4:00

Simranjit Singh, a 41-year-old man from Brampton, Ont., pleaded guilty to nine counts of human smuggling before the U.S. Federal Court for the Northern District of New York on Friday. The case has revealed more information on a network that potentially moved hundreds of people from India across the Canada-U.S. border.

An Indian national from Brampton, Ont., pleaded guilty in a U.S. federal court on Friday to human smuggling as part of a network that potentially moved hundreds of people from India across the Canada-U.S. border.

Simranjit (Shally) Singh, 41, pleaded guilty to six counts of alien smuggling and three counts of conspiracy to commit alien smuggling during an appearance in Albany, N.Y., before Judge Mae A. D'Agostino.

Singh appeared in a short-sleeved orange jumpsuit with "ACCF Inmate" written on the back, which stands for Albany County Correctional Facility. He wore black-rimmed glasses, with salt and pepper stubble spread down his cheeks and chin. There was a small tattoo behind his left ear and another scrawled down his left forearm.

None of Singh's family or friends appeared at the hearing.

Singh's plea agreement included an admission that he arranged to smuggle people into the U.S. from India by flying them to Calgary, Toronto and Montreal, before transporting them to Cornwall, Ont. Singh then moved the Indian nationals by boat across the St. Lawrence River through Akwesasne, a Haudenosaunee community that straddles the Canada-U.S. border and sits about 120 kilometres west of Montreal.

U.S. authorities said Singh bragged he smuggled more than 1,000 people into the U.S. from Canada.

The case against Singh was based on evidence gathered through surveillance, Facebook messages and human sources related to four failed smuggling attempts across the St. Lawrence River between March 2020 and April 2022, according to court records.

Singh acted as a broker, charging $5,000 to $35,000 per person to smuggle mainly Indian nationals into the U.S. He then paid people in Akwesasne between $2,000 to $3,000 per person to take them across the river through the community's territory.

Singh's indictment is not connected to the deaths of eight suspected migrants — including four Indian citizens — on the St. Lawrence in March.

However, there are similarities in Singh's routes and tactics, and those used by the network behind the fatal human smuggling attempt, which also left a Romanian family of four dead.

The plea agreement included the admission that Singh, using locals, loaded Indian nationals on boats which launched from Cornwall Island in Akwesasne, across the water to the southern shore of the St. Lawrence River, where they were picked up in vehicles and taken to nearby New York state motels.

This was the same route followed by the Indian and Romanian families who died in March.

A cog in a bigger network

After the hearing, Singh's lawyer, Lee Kindlon, told CBC News that his client was likely exaggerating when he claimed he smuggled 1,000 people over the border. Kindlon said Singh was just a cog in a much bigger network.

"Hopefully through sentencing, we can show that his role in this larger enterprise was actually quite small," said Kindlon, with the Albany-based Kindlon Law Firm.

"I'm not sure how much he entirely knows about the larger network. Everyone answers to somebody else, but who is on top of the food chain, I am not sure he knew or understood."

Singh was also suffering from depression and anxiety in jail, Kindlon said.

Singh's sentencing hearing is scheduled for Dec. 28, 2023. He faces a potential prison sentence ranging from five to 15 years and deportation to India.

"He has always been regretful about getting carried away in this whole thing," said Kindlon. "Saying guilty here is the first step toward redemption and ultimately acceptance of punishment and responsibility."

Evidence gathered by U.S. authorities shows Singh exploited vulnerable Akwesasne members facing addiction and poverty as part of his operation.

Singh, who was facing deportation from Canada when he was arrested and extradited, originally arrived in Montreal from India in 2010 with his then-wife and one child, and filed refugee claims. His mother then arrived with his other child and also filed refugee claims. All five were ultimately rejected, according to court records.

Canadian authorities could not return them to India because the Indian Consulate refused to provide travel documents.

Singh attempted to stay in Canada after marrying a second wife, who sponsored him. That application was pending at the time of his arrest in the summer of 2022.

Smuggled during COVID-19 outbreak

The U.S. case against Singh grew from his failed attempt to smuggle three Indian nationals into the U.S. in March 2020, shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a shutdown of the border.

In this instance, he used a single mother of two from Akwesasne dealing with severe trauma and facing care-related costs for one of her children, who required extensive hospitalization, according to court records.

The woman is said to have picked up three Indian nationals after they crossed the St. Lawrence River, driving them to a motel over the eastern border of Akwesasne, which was under watch by U.S. Border Patrol.

Agents stopped her vehicle the next day, after she returned and picked up the three Indian nationals, who tried running from the traffic stop. The woman also tried to flee, eventually crashing into four Border Patrol vehicles.

In another case in late winter 2021, a family in India allegedly paid Singh thousands of dollars to smuggle a family member into the U.S. Singh drove the individual to a motel in Cornwall, Ont.

"Singh bragged about smuggling over 1,000 people and that [the Indian national] had nothing to worry about," according to U.S. records.

The Indian national boarded a boat on March 4 with three other migrants, and landed on a U.S. portion of Akwesasne governed by the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council. But no one was there to pick them up.

The tribal police found three of them and called U.S. Border Patrol. The fourth was found at a motel in Massena, N.Y.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jorge Barrera

Reporter

Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him jorge.barrera@cbc.ca.

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