A Vancouver man accused of being involved in an elaborate operation that may have helped smuggle hundreds of Chinese migrants across the Canada-U.S. border by exploiting lax oversight at an international park pleaded guilty to several offences Monday, just before his trial was set to begin.Michael Kong, 62, wore a red jumpsuit and leg shackles and when B.C. provincial court Judge Patrick Doherty asked whether he was pleading guilty to four of the seven counts of human smuggling of which he’d been accused, he answered, “Yes.”In a twist, however, court heard one of the outstanding counts was still in dispute and may yet proceed to trial. Federal Crown prosecutor Ryan Carrier said that the Canada Border Services Agency was working to arrange travel for a key witness who lives in China.A sentencing hearing for Kong won’t happen until that outstanding count is resolved, perhaps in a few weeks.The message Canadians are getting is that the border isn’t secure
The offences to which Kong has pleaded carry a mandatory minimum sentence of three years in jail if the Crown can prove that the crime was committed for profit or in association with or for the benefit of organized crime. The Crown is seeking a sentence that exceeds that minimum. Kong’s defence lawyer is possibly looking to challenge that minimum, court heard.Weighing in for the first time since the National Post revealed last month the years-long investigation into suspicious activity at Peace Arch Park, federal immigration critic Michelle Rempel said Kong’s case reinforces a “recurring narrative” that the government is not doing enough to manage the border.“The message Canadians are getting is that the border isn’t secure and the government isn’t maintaining the integrity of our border,” she said.According to search warrant applications obtained by the Post, CBSA investigators allege the smuggling operation followed a general pattern: Chinese nationals flew to the U.S. on valid travel visas, made their way to Seattle and then got dropped off at or near Peace Arch Park — a 16-hectare park that straddles the international border between Surrey, B.C., and Blaine, Wash.
Michael Kong, the Vancouver man charged with multiple counts of human smuggling across the border at a pre-trial hearing in Richmond Provincial Court held on Oct. 22, 2018.
There are no physical barriers in the park and as long as they stay within its boundaries, visitors are free to walk back and forth without a passport.Once the migrants walked across the border, someone waiting for them on the Canadian side would guide them to a vehicle, court records say.An email uncovered during the investigation and translated from Chinese instructed would-be border jumpers to “smile” and “be natural” when walking through the park and to pretend to take pictures.While Kong had a hands-on role in the initial stages of the operation, the task of drop-offs and pick-ups was eventually delegated to others, according to investigators. But Kong was still involved in helping migrants obtain airplane tickets and transporting them to the airport, court records say. Many of the migrants ended up filing refugee claims at an inland government office in Etobicoke, a suburb of Toronto.The investigation culminated last September with the arrest of Kong, a former sawmill worker. He 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. He has pleaded not guilty.
A CBSA surveillance photo attached to a search warrant application shows Michael Kong leading a group of suspected Chinese migrants through a parking lot at Parker Place mall in Richmond, B.C., on June 13, 2015.
Electronic ledgers — or “score sheets” — found on a computer in Michael Kong’s home listed the names of more than 900 foreign nationals believed to have been smuggled between 2011 and 2016, according to investigators.Of those listed, about one third were found to have filed refugee claims in Canada, while a few were smuggled into the U.S. The whereabouts of the others is not known.When the Post tried to determine who on the Canadian side was responsible for patrolling the park, authorities couldn’t seem to agree. The CBSA said it was the RCMP’s responsibility. However, the RCMP said Peace Arch Park was “a collaborative, layered responsibility that is patrolled in partnership with CBSA, the Surrey RCMP and an RCMP Federal Unit.”Such finger pointing is unacceptable and a symptom of the government’s lack of clear direction on managing the border, Rempel said. The fact there are two federal ministers — Ralph Goodale and Bill Blair — whose responsibilities include the border has created confusion, she added. Rempel said a loophole in a border agreement between Canada and the U.S. needs to be closed to discourage asylum-seekers from jumping the border from the U.S. Under the Safe Third Country Agreement, asylum seekers cannot seek refugee protection in Canada if they have arrived at a Canadian port of entry from a “safe” country, such as the United States. However, that rule does not apply to asylum seekers who enter Canada in between ports of entry.Rempel cited a recent auditor general’s report that said wait times for the processing of refugee claims could increase to five years by 2024.A spokeswoman for Blair said Monday she could not talk about individual cases but said the government was making investments to “maintain our system’s fairness … by processing up to 50,000 claims per year and removing those not fleeing war and persecution in a timely manner.”Emmanuelle-Marie Cadieux said the government was also working with source and transit countries to “correct misinformation about our asylum process and deter irregular migration” and noted that changes to the Safe Third Country Agreement cannot happen unilaterally.A CBSA spokeswoman was unable to say what the status was of the 300-plus refugee claims filed by migrants listed on the score sheets.“If they are found to be inadmissible, they may be removed from Canada,” the spokeswoman said. “Entering Canada without reporting at a port of entry is illegal and is an offence under Canadian law.”If they are found to be inadmissible, they may be removed from Canada
Asked why most of the migrants appeared to have filed their claims at an office in Etobicoke, a spokesman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said, “We cannot speculate on why people choose to claim asylum at a specific office.”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,” court records say.Kong told investigators he had been helping people with immigration applications but acknowledged he was not a licensed or registered consultant.The Post recently learned that Kong’s name appears on the website of a Vancouver lawyer, Iven Tse, in a referral section for various services. Kong is listed under “Interpreters and Translators.” Reached by phone, Tse told the Post he was unaware that Kong had been charged with smuggling.“Oh my goodness,” he said. Asked about the history of his relationship with Kong, Tse said he would have to search his records and get back to the Post. He never did.Court records allege Kong purchased airplane tickets for migrants from a travel agency called M’s Travel located in an Asian mall in Richmond, B.C. Phillip Mak, the owner of M’s travel, recently told the Post he deals with a number of clients and had no recollection of dealing with a Michael Kong.• Email: email@example.com | Twitter: dougquan