Forty-six people were found dead in a blistering tractor-trailer that had been abandoned on a remote San Antonio road in what marked the latest tragedy that claimed the lives of migrants smuggled across the border from Mexico to the US. Sixteen people were hospitalized, including four children.
A city worker heard a cry for help from the truck shortly before 6 p.m. Monday and discovered the horrific scene, Police Chief William McManus said. Hours later, body bags lay strewn on the floor by the trailer as a grim symbol of the disaster.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the 46 dead “had families who were probably trying to find a better life.”
“This is nothing short of a horrific human tragedy,” Nirenberg said.
It is one of the deadliest tragedies that has killed thousands of people in recent decades trying to cross the US border from Mexico. Ten migrants died in 2017 after being trapped in a truck parked at a Walmart in San Antonio. In 2003, 19 migrants were found in a blistering truck southeast of San Antonio.
The homelands of the immigrants and how long they were left on the side of the road was not immediately known.
South Texas has long been the busiest area for illegal border crossings. Migrants drive vehicles through border police checkpoints to San Antonio, the nearest major city, from where they spread across the United States.
A city worker on the scene on a remote road in southwest San Antonio was alerted to the situation by a cry for help shortly before 6 p.m. Monday, Police Chief William McManus said. Officers arrived and found a body on the ground outside the trailer and a partially opened gate to the trailer, he said.
Hours later, body bags lay strewn on the floor by the trailer as a grim symbol of the disaster. The bodies were still inside.
Of the 16 taken to hospitals with heat-related illnesses, 12 were adults and four children, fire chief Charles Hood said. The patients were hot to the touch and dehydrated, and no water was found in the trailer, he said.
“They had heat stroke and were exhausted,” Hood said. “It was a refrigerated tractor-trailer, but there was no working AC unit on that rig.”
Those in the trailer were part of a suspected migrant smuggling attempt into the United States, and the investigation was being led by US Homeland Security Investigations, McManus said.
Three people were detained, but it was unclear whether they were definitively linked to human trafficking, McManus said.
Big rigs emerged as a popular method of smuggling in the early 1990s, amid a wave of U.S. border enforcement in San Diego and El Paso, Texas, which were then the busiest corridors for illegal crossings.
Before that, people paid small fees to mom-and-pop operators to get them across a largely unguarded frontier. When crossing the road became exponentially more difficult after the 2001 terror attacks in the US, migrants were led through more dangerous terrain and paid thousands of dollars more.
Heat is a serious hazard, especially when the temperature inside vehicles can rise sharply. The weather in the San Antonio area was mostly cloudy on Monday, but temperatures were approaching 100 degrees.
Some proponents linked it to the Biden administration’s border policies. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, director of policy at the American Immigration Council, wrote that he had feared such a tragedy for months.
“With the border closed as tightly as it is now to migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, people have been pushed on increasingly dangerous routes. Truck smuggling is a way out,” he wrote on Twitter.
Stephen Miller, a chief architect of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, said “People smugglers and traffickers are bad and bad” and that the government’s approach to border security is rewarding their actions.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican running for reelection, was blunt in a tweet about the Democratic president: “These deaths are on Biden. They are the result of his deadly open borders policy.”
Migrants — largely from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — have been displaced more than 2 million times under a pandemic rule in effect since March 2020 that deprives them of the opportunity to apply for asylum but encourages repeat attempts because there is no legal consequences of getting caught. People from other countries, especially Cuba, Nicaragua and Colombia, are less likely to be subject to Title 42 authority because of the higher cost of sending them home, tense diplomatic relations and other considerations.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 557 deaths at the southwestern border in the 12-month period ended Sept. 30, more than double the 247 deaths reported the previous year and the highest since it began tracking in 1998. Most have to do with heat exposure.
CBP has not released a death toll for this year, but said the border patrol conducted 14,278 “search-and-rescue missions” in a seven-month period through May, more than the 12,833 missions conducted during the previous 12-month period. and from 5,071 the year before.
Spagat reported from San Diego. Reporter Terry Wallace contributed from Dallas.