The historic migrant death crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border continues to grow. On Monday evening, 46 migrants were found dead in a semi-truck in San Antonio, Texas. As of Tuesday evening, the death toll had risen to 51, according to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Sixteen people, including 12 adults and four children, were initially found alive and taken to medical facilities, according to San Antonio Chief Charles Hood. Twenty-two of the people who died were Mexican nationals, seven were from Guatemala, and two were from Honduras. Authorities have yet to confirm the nationalities of the remaining victims.
What is being called the deadliest “human smuggling” case in modern U.S. history and the largest migrant mass casualty event, is the latest in a series of increasingly frequent fatal incidents deaths at the border. Immigration advocates say deterrent policies like “Remain in Mexico” and Title 42 have pushed migrants to seek dangerous forms of migration, and risk their lives in the process.
“Our hearts go out to all of those affected by this horrific tragedy. We mourn for those who lost their lives, and send well wishes to those in recovery,” said Bruna Sollod, the senior communications and political director for United We Dream, in a statement. “This is one of the deadliest incidents of attempted migration in recent history and it was completely preventable. People will always move, and our government has a responsibility to ensure that people are able to do so safely and with dignity.”
While U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has not reported the number of deaths across the entire border since 2020 (despite being required to do so), according to the Washington Office of Latin America’s Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas, there have been 10 drownings in El Paso’s irrigation canals since June 9 alone. Since October 2021, CBP has reported 14,278 “search and rescue efforts”, exceeding the 12,833 efforts in all of fiscal year 2021. CBP has reported encountering more than 1 million migrants at the southwest border since January.
“For years now, our asylum system has been eviscerated with the continuation of policies like Title 42 and ‘Remain in Mexico.’ By allowing these policies to continue, President Biden has contributed to creating dangerous conditions for people who migrate,” Sollod said in a statement. “This goes beyond yesterday’s tragic incident in San Antonio, and includes the horrific beating of Haitians we saw at the border last year at the hands of CBP. When people move, their rights move with them, and both the Biden administration and Congress must do more to ensure we have an immigration system that prioritizes human life and human rights.”
López Obrador said the Mexican government will provide assistance to the family members of those who died. The big rig truck was found abandoned near train tracks in Southwest San Antonio. Texas’ record-setting hot weather is said to have led to heat exhaustion and extreme dehydration, with temperatures climbing to 101 on Monday.
“This is a direct result of policies such as Remain in Mexico, such as Title 42,” said Haddy Gassama, the national director of policy and advocacy at UndocuBlack. “There is this idea that the southern border as we know it and access to asylum is pretty much just sealed and closed, so people are finding more dangerous ways to try to seek refuge.”
San Antonio Police Chief William P. McManus said three people were taken into custody following the discovery, but it is not known if they were definitively related to the incident. Homeland Security Investigations responded to the incident and will be continuing the investigation.
RAICES Texas was among the first legal service providers on the scene on Monday evening and said the tragedy is a failure of leadership at all levels of government. According to Miriam Camero, the vice president for RAICES Social Programs, the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of Gov. Greg Abbott, Rep. Tony Gonzales, Sen. Ted Cruz, who “lack a moral compass,” and “their cronies whose political stunts exploit immigrants for political gain and whose failure in leadership leaves communities like ours reeling from avoidable tragedies like this one.”
Members of RAICES have attempted to communicate with the victims currently in hospitals, to no avail. According to Camero, RAICES has not been able to speak with victims’ families or gain access to let the victims know that they have legal resources available to them. As of Tuesday afternoon, HSI was still surrounding the victims’ hospital rooms and not allowing anyone from their organization to provide legal resources.
“It is a huge concern for us considering the fact that we have seen this in other situations in which a migrant, whether they be a child or an adult, is in a hospital setting,” Camero said. “We have had ICE and HSI take out phones from victim’s hospital rooms so they would not have outside contact. I’m not sure they have their best interest at heart considering all of the events of these last couple of years and honestly decades.”
While the migrants are currently being treated in hospitals, they will still face immigration proceedings. Camero said they often see migrants in similar situations be deported, which is why they will remain vigilant to make sure they can connect with victims and their families.
“One thing that we have seen is a lot of these agencies do tend to skirt or have discretionary decisions about how to handle certain situations and we’re trying to make sure that their rights are still being upheld and that they are giving a full informed decision before they sign anything or before they make any sort of decision,” Camero said.
RAICES Texas is continuing to surround the hospitals where victims in stable conditions have been taken until they are able to communicate with family members to offer resources and support. They will also continue to advocate for the end of Title 42 and Remain in Mexico and in favor of a welcoming immigration system that “recognizes the humanity” of all people. The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights is urging policymakers to grant emergency humanitarian visas for families to travel to the U.S. to repatriate remains. The Supreme Court of the United States is expected to issue a ruling on Texas v. Biden this week, which will determine whether President Joe Biden’s executive order to end “Remain in Mexico” can be upheld.
“This speaks to the broader issue of how broken our immigration system is,” Camero said. “We will not fail to make sure that these lives are honored and to respect the dignity of their life and their fight for a better life here in the United States.”