WASHINGTON — Drowned in the Rio Grande. Murdered in Mexico. Perished in the Arizona desert. Truck tragedy recalls fight to stop migrant deaths
A tragic reminder came this week when 50 people died after being abandoned in the back of a tractor-trailer in the scorching heat of San Antonio, Texas. Authorities believe the vehicle was part of a human smuggling operation.
While the scale of the calamity was shocking, it is just the most recent example to illustrate how US officials have struggled to find the right strategy to patrol the border and prevent deaths.
A lax enforcement may encourage more people to travel north in hopes of a better life. But repression is not always dissuasive. Instead, migrants may rely on riskier routes to avoid detection, or put themselves in the hands of smugglers who promise they can evade authorities for a price.
Meanwhile, immigration policy is trapped in partisan stasis in Washington. The San Antonio tragedy seemed more likely to lead to another round of political finger-pointing than any change in policy.
President Joe Biden, in Europe this week for international summits, said the deaths were “horrific and heartbreaking”.
“While we are still learning the full facts about what happened and the Department of Homeland Security is leading the investigation, initial reports indicate that this tragedy was caused by human smugglers. or human traffickers who have no respect for the lives they endanger and exploit for profit,” he said in a statement.
Biden added, “Exploiting vulnerable people for profit is shameful, as is political grandstanding around tragedy, and my administration will continue to do everything possible to prevent human smugglers and traffickers from profiting from persons seeking to enter the United States between ports of entry.”
The migrants were discovered on Monday when a city worker heard a call for help coming from the abandoned truck that was parked on the side of a side road. Dozens were already dead; others died in nearby hospitals.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said those who died were “probably trying to find a better life.”
“This is nothing less than a horrific human tragedy,” Nirenberg said.
It has also become a time for new political attacks.
“These deaths are on Biden,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, tweeted hours after the gruesome discovery. “They are the result of his murderous open border policies. They show the deadly consequences of his failure to enforce the law.
Many of former President Donald Trump’s strict border policies — including Title 42, which bars many migrants from seeking asylum during the public health emergency caused by the coronavirus — remained in place under Biden, who is democrat.
Immigration advocates disagreed with Abbott’s criticisms.
Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, director of policy at the US Immigration Council, suggested that it was rigid, not lax enforcement that contributed to the tragedy.
“With the border closed as tightly as it is today for migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, people have been pushed down increasingly dangerous routes. Truck smuggling is up,” he wrote on Twitter.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One — as Biden flew between summits in Germany and Spain — that the administration was focused on victims and held the smugglers responsible.
“The thing is, the border is closed, which is part of why you see people trying to make this dangerous journey using smuggling rings,” she said. “Our prayers go out to those who tragically lost their lives, to their loved ones and to those who are still fighting for their lives. We are also grateful for the quick work of federal, state and local first responders. »
Deaths became commonplace at the border after “Operation Gatekeeper,” launched in 1994, pushed migrant smuggling into the Arizona deserts from San Diego. Despite billions of dollars spent each year on border security since then, neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have been able to stem the loss of life.
Migrants routinely take risks to enter the United States.
Jose Castillo, 43, left Nicaragua with his wife and 14-year-old son in January but did not cross the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass, Texas, until May, paralyzed by fear of drowning. He and his wife finally decided that one of them could die, as long as their child made it out safe and sound. They took a chance – and it worked.
“We can never go back to Nicaragua,” he said.
Under Trump and Biden, Border Patrol agents have been in extremely high demand as they spend long periods processing cases in immigration court. Such responsibilities take them out of the way, making it easier for people to cross undetected. The Border Patrol recently began releasing tens of thousands of migrants on parole in hopes of releasing more officers on the ground to try to arrest the migrants.
The number of people crossing the border illegally is at or near its highest in about two decades. Decisions to migrate are complex, but many people may go unnoticed and encourage others to come. Successful migrants sometimes tell their stories to family and friends back home, encouraging them to follow.
At the same time, Title 42 encouraged repeated attempts to cross the border because there are no legal consequences, such as criminal charges or deportation records, for getting caught. Many people go through several times until they succeed.
It is unclear whether any of the migrants who died in San Antonio had ever been deported.
Isis Peña, 45, fled Honduras with a friend, who urged her to cross the border illegally. Peña refused but began to regret her decision after the friend quickly called from San Antonio to say she got off easy and the US authorities didn’t even ask her questions before she was released. .
The next day, Peña attempted to cross. Although she crossed the river, she was deported to Mexico under the authority of Title 42.
Spagat reported from San Diego.