The death toll in an alleged human smuggling incident in San Antonio, Texas has risen to 50, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
On Monday evening, San Antonio law enforcement and the fire department responded to a call about bodies found in the Southwestern part of the city. They found 46 people dead in the back of a semi truck who are believed to have been migrants. There were sixteen survivors—12 adults and four minors. By Tuesday morning, according to an ICE spokesperson, the death toll increased to 50.
The people found alive at the scene were “hot to the touch,” said Charles Hood, San Antonio Fire Chief during a Monday evening press conference. “They were suffering from heat stroke, heat exhaustion. No signs of water in the vehicle. It was a refrigerated tractor trailer, but there was no visible working A/C unit on that rig.” He added that the survivors were too weak to help themselves out of the semi truck, but were conscious.
“We’re not supposed to open up a truck and see stacks of bodies in there,” Hood said. “None of us come to work imagining that.”
Here’s what to know about the incident.
What we know so far
On Monday evening, a worker in a nearby building heard a cry for help, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said during the Monday press conference, and opened the trailer to find bodies inside. The worker placed a call to authorities shortly before 6 p.m., and approximately 60 firefighters arrived to the scene. The San Antonio Police Department and Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) also arrived to the desolate stretch of road in the Southwestern part of the city.
McManus said this is the largest death toll he can recall of an incident of this kind. Three people were detained at the scene, but it’s unclear if or how they were involved with the deaths, McManus said. In a statement to TIME, HSI, the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), said the individuals detained are “believed to be part of the smuggling conspiracy.”
HSI has taken over the investigation, which remains ongoing. “HSI continues its enforcement efforts to ensure the safety and well-being of our communities,” a spokesperson with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the DHS body that oversees HSI, told TIME in a statement. “We will continue to address the serious public safety threat posed by human smuggling organizations and their reckless disregard for the health and safety of those smuggled.”
What we know about the victims
Of the victims that have so far been identified, 22 are Mexican nationals, seven were Guatemalan, and two were Honduran, according to Mexico Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard.
“We know that these families came to find new opportunities for their families,” San Antonio Council Member Adriana Rocha Garcia told reporters in Spanish on Monday evening. “The city of San Antonio is known as a city with a lot of compassion, so this hurts us all that this has happened here in the city. But the people who have survived who are in hospital, we’re sure that they will be treated with the care most deserved of people who have suffered so much.”
The New York Times reports
that the survivors are being treated at the Baptist Medical Center in San Antonio, and three of them remain in critical condition.
Death at the U.S.-Mexico border
The U.S. has been the main country of destination for international migrants since 1970, according to the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration
(IOM). The IOM’s Missing Migrants Project has documented
nearly 3,000 deaths of migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border since it began collecting data in 2014.
Since the 1990s, the U.S.’s response to increasing migration at the U.S.-Mexico border has been to implement deterrence measures and policies to try to discourage unauthorized migration. These deterrence efforts, however, have led to increases in migrants taking deadlier risks to enter the U.S., experts have documented. Over the same period of time, Congress has failed to pass any type of meaningful immigration policy, making it increasingly difficult to immigrate to the U.S. legally.
Though migration to the U.S.-Mexico border has remained lower in recent years than the record-breaking highs seen between 1983-2006, migration to the border has increased since 2021, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse
(TRAC), a research organization at Syracuse University.
“We can’t look to enforcement solely, we can’t enforce our way out of this issue of migration pressures and migration flows,” says Doris Meissner, senior fellow and director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonpartisan research organization.
Some of the pressures at the border have been compounded by the U.S.’s Title 42
health measure, an authority put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic that officials have used to immediately expel people who attempt an unauthorized crossing or who wish to claim asylum. So far this fiscal year, which began in October, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have faced more than 1.5 million encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border (this figure includes people who have been encountered more than one time). Of those encounters, more than 750,000 resulted in a Title 42 expulsion.
How governments are reacting
In a Tuesday statement, President Joe Biden called the deaths “horrifying and heartbreaking,” and said the Administration, working with regional partners, has launched a “first-of-its kind anti-smuggling campaign.” In the past three months, the White House says, over 2,400 arrests have been made. “Exploiting vulnerable individuals for profit is shameful, as is political grandstanding around tragedy, and my Administration will continue to do everything possible to stop human smugglers and traffickers from taking advantage of people who are seeking to enter the United States between ports of entry,” Biden said.
U.S. officials are collaborating with the Mexican Consulate, which is also in contact with its counterparts in Central America, according to Ruben Minutti-Zanatta, Consul of Mexico based in San Antonio. On Tuesday, Ebrard announced
that the Mexican Attorney General is also opening an investigation into the San Antonio tragedy.
Meanwhile, other Texas and Immigration officials have shared their condolences and shock about what happened.
“Horrified at this tragic loss of life near San Antonio,” CBP Commissioner Chris Magnus said on Twitter. “This speaks to the desperation of migrants who would put their lives in the hands of callous human smugglers who show no regard for human life. We will be working with our federal, state and local partners to assist in every way possible with this investigation.”
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who spoke at the Monday evening press conference and called for those responsible to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, also shared additional comments on Twitter. “Migrants seeking asylum should always be treated as a humanitarian crisis, but this evening we’re facing a horrific human tragedy,” he wrote. “More than 40 hopeful lives were lost. I urge you to think compassionately, pray for the deceased, the ailing, and their families at this moment.”
Texas Governor Greg Abbott said on Monday evening that Biden is to blame for the deaths, saying, “They are a result of his deadly open border policies,” and “they show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law.” (The Biden Administration’s border policies include Title 42 expulsions of some migrants, and the use of the “Remain in Mexico” program, which requires those seeking asylum to wait in Mexico while their case is decided by a judge in the U.S. Unaccompanied minors and some family units are exempted from these policies and are able to request asylum in the U.S.)
DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas also took to Twitter to share a call to action. “I am heartbroken by the tragic loss of life today and am praying for those still fighting for their lives,” he wrote. “Far too many lives have been lost as individuals—including families, women, and children—take this dangerous journey… We will work alongside our partners to hold those responsible for this tragedy accountable and continue to take action to disrupt smuggling networks.”