Thirty-nine migrants were found in the back of a truck in a Walmart parking lot in San Antonio, Texas, in what is believed to have been a human smuggling operation. Eight were found dead and many more in critical condition when police and emergency services arrived on the scene at around 12:30 am on Sunday, July 23. Two others later died in hospital. All of the migrants in the trailer suffered from a combination of dehydration, heatstroke, and suffocation from lack of food, water, and air conditioning, as they took turns breathing from a small air hole, while temperatures soared to 37 degrees Celsius outside.
Many of the surviving migrants, who are a range of South American ethnicities, had been collected from Mexico in small groups to cross the border, after which they were left in ‘stash houses’ in Texas for up to eleven days and then escorted to the truck. Some had paid off Mexican drug cartels for safe passage to the border and others owed smugglers money upon arrival in San Antonio. The horrific conditions in the truck prompted many passengers to begin unsuccessfully banging on the walls to attract the driver’s attention. However, the truck did not stop until it reached San Antonio, 240km later.
Thomas Homan, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, believed that more than 100 people were crammed into the back of the truck, although the migrants believed the number was closer to 200. Most of these people were picked up by six black SUVs when the truck arrived in the parking lot, according to security footage.
The truck driver, James Bradley Jr., claimed he was unaware there were people on board and was only delivering the truck to its new owner. However, his story is at odds with migrant and security footage accounts, and he is facing charges of illegally transporting immigrants for financial gain, resulting in death.
Controversially, the Texas state lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, blamed sanctuary cities and underlined the need for stricter ‘anti-sanctuary city’ laws, due to take effect in September. He stated that the case demonstrated “why we need a secure border and legal immigration reform.”
Texas state representative, Eddie Rodriguez, decried Patrick’s statement and said this was not the time for “self-indulgent cheerleading.”
People smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border has long been an issue, and this incident is not the first or even the most tragic. In 2003, nineteen migrants died when temperatures inside a truck reached 78 degrees Celsius. Since 1994, the non-profit group Border Angels estimated that nearly 10,000 migrants had died attempting to cross from Mexico to the United States. The majority of those that cross the border are generally fleeing violence and/or poor living and working conditions, with a hope for a better chance at life elsewhere. Migrants that are desperate and willing to take the risks of illegal entry into another country are also vulnerable, and it is this vulnerability that smugglers prey upon. With little regard for human life, smugglers often require exorbitant fees from migrants while offering no guarantee of migrant safety.
The U.S.-Mexico border sees some of the highest numbers of legal and illegal border crossings of any border in the world. In response, border control, enforcement, and militarization from the United States Border Patrol have increased over time. However, these methods have not necessarily curbed illegal border crossings or migrant deaths. Tighter border control means that migrants and smugglers are likely to take more dangerous routes into the U.S. which can only lead to an increase in migrant deaths. Instead, immigration policies and systems in the U.S. need to change in order to allow undocumented migrants to gain citizenship. Currently, news reports claim there is a backlog of over 500,000 cases in U.S. immigration courts; many cases are continually pushed back and can take up to five years to resolve and the too few judges only exacerbate the problem.
Illegal border crossings and migrant deaths will remain an issue as long as ineffective immigration policies do not change, border enforcement continues to become more militarized, and smugglers continue to take advantage of migrants’ desperation and hope.
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