• September 25th, 2021
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Tragic Deaths Reveal a Lot About Our Immigration Policy


Ten people died and more than a dozen others are facing life-threatening injuries after a border crossing turned deadly in Texas early Sunday morning, the Associated Press reported.

Eight bodies were recovered from a tractor-trailer without ventilation at a San Antonio-area Walmart parking lot after emergency responders arrived at the scene and found dozens of people with severe dehydration and heat stroke. Two additional people died at the hospital, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson said. At least two school-age children were among the people transported to seven area hospitals.

Before emergency responders arrived, a number of people who survived the trip were picked up by other drivers and left the scene, Police Chief William McManus said Sunday at a press conference. It’s likely that there were more than 100 people in the truck, Thomas Homan, acting ICE director said.

“They were very hot to the touch. So these people were in this trailer without any signs of any type of water,” Fire Chief Charles Hood said. “It was a mass casualty situation for us.”

All the recovered bodies were male.

Community organizers turned out for a vigil Sunday evening to honor the nine people who died and to pray for the survivors.

“No human has to die in the search of a better life,” Barbie Hurtado, a community organizer with the nonprofit organization RAICES, told San Antonio Express-News.

“No human has to die in the search of a better life.”

It’s unknown how long the people were in the truck, but McManus said a Walmart employee alerted the police after an individual in the truck approached him asking for water. Police have identified James Matthew Bradley Jr. of Clearwater, Florida as the truck driver. The immigrants on the truck included Mexicans and Guatemalans. A Customs and Border Protection (CBP) spokesperson said that the people in the truck likely crossed the Mexican border on foot before being taken to a stash house and put on the tractor-trailer to be taken somewhere further north, the New York Times reported.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Human traffickers have left desperate border crossers to die in a variety of locations. In one of the most deadly human trafficking cases in recent memory, a truck driver abandoned a milk trailer in 2003, leaving 19 people to die at a truck stop near Victoria, Texas. In 2015, Austrian officials found anywhere between 20 and 50 bodies partly decomposing inside a truck on a highway in Austria.

It’s possible that more tragic stories like this could unfold with other people desperately trying to get into the United States. Given President Donald Trump’s restrictionist immigration policies to build up a border wall and increase federal presence at the border, people will find more dangerous roads through isolated, rugged terrain to enter the country. When border enforcement ramped up under former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, there was a steady increase in the number of bodies recovered along the three main border states of Texas, Arizona, and California. Since 2009, roughly 500 migrants have been recovered along the Texas border with many people having attempted to evade authorities.

People rarely put their lives in the hands of human traffickers and smugglers unless they have made serious considerations to come to the United States. While some leave for economic reasons, others leave because staying in their countries could mean death. Mexico, for example, has struggled to end organized crime syndicates and recorded 2,234 homicides in June, the deadliest month in at least 20 years, according to government data. And Guatemala is facing large-scale displacement thanks to people trying to leave behind violence.

It’s thus far unclear whether this is a case of human trafficking or human smuggling. San Antonio Police Chief William McManus called the case a “human trafficking crime” while Acting ICE director Thomas Homan characterized it as human smuggling, NBC News reported. Human trafficking and human smuggling are considered “distinct criminal activities, and the terms are not interchangeable,” according to ICE.

“By any standard, the horrific crime uncovered last night ranks as a stark reminder of why human smuggling networks must be pursued, caught and punished,” Homan said in an emailed statement to ThinkProgress on July 24th. “These networks have repeatedly shown a reckless disregard for those they smuggle, as last night’s case demonstrates. I personally worked on a tragic tractor trailer case in Victoria, Texas in 2003 in which 19 people were killed as a result of the smugglers’ total indifference to the safety of those smuggled and to the law.”

According to My San Antonio, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) representatives are blaming “severe anti-immigrant laws” in the U.S. for the deaths of 10 people left in the trailer of an 18-wheeler during a human trafficking operation.

“The tragedy is a result of severe anti-immigrant laws whose only purpose is to further marginalize an already vulnerable population,” said Gabriel Rosales, the LULAC National Vice President of the Southwest, in a written statement. “For those who insist on burying their heads in the sand, let this massacre serve as a reminder of the real consequences of such hateful policies.”

LULAC Councils in San Antonio will be available to provide assistance to survivors. They can be contacted at 210-223-7327. The organization has also set up a fund (lulac.org/contribute) to help with costs related to sending the dead victims to their home countries.

Esther Yu Hsi Lee is an Immigration Reporter at ThinkProgress.org