Death is a constant risk for undocumented migrants entering Texas

By Lomi Kriel, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, and Uriel J. García, The Texas Tribune

Nearly four dozen migrants were found dead in an overheated tractor trailer on an industrial road in south San Antonio Monday. Many of them had been sprinkled with steak seasoning in a possible attempt by smugglers to ward off authorities, law enforcement officials said.

The sheer scale and disturbing details, including migrants who apparently tried to escape the suffocating triple-digit temperatures inside the truck by jumping to their deaths along several city blocks, were horrific.

Large numbers of fatalities along the most heavily trafficked northbound path from Mexico and Central America, for decades the route of those seeking the American dream, are not unusual or unprecedented. Still, the staggering amount Monday, more than any in recent memory, stunned law enforcement and migrant advocates alike.

The magnitude may reflect more migrants seeking increasingly dangerous pathways to come here as enforcement policies along the border — both by the Biden administration and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott — have strengthened. Biden has kept in place a pandemic-era regulation from the Trump administration that expels many migrants immediately without asylum hearings.

Immigration officials have recorded a record number of apprehensions at the southwest border under the Biden administration, with most single men and some families sent back to Mexico. People caught crossing repeatedly have also peaked under the administration’s policies, which effectively curtail many asylum-seekers.

As the prospect of being able to stay in the U.S. and seek that protection has become more difficult, deaths have risen. At least 650 migrants died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in 2021, more than in any other year since the International Organization for Migration, a part of the United Nations, began tracking the data in 2014.

“The border is more closed down now than almost any time in history,” said Allison Norris, a supervising attorney for immigration legal services for the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington. “This has led folks to increasingly seek out smugglers and engage in more dangerous ways of getting across the border.”

She said most of her clients would prefer to turn themselves into official ports of entry at the border and seek asylum rather than crossing illegally, which is usually much more dangerous and involves risky journeys through thick Texas brush or deserts and ruthless smugglers.

But under the Trump and Biden administrations’ policies of expelling migrants or keeping them in Mexico to wait for their asylum hearing, that was more difficult, she said.

Before Monday, the worst smuggling-related mass fatality in recent Texas history came in 2003, when 19 people died after being trapped in an unrefrigerated dairy truck for hundreds of miles.

Authorities later estimated that the temperature rose above 170 degrees as the desperate migrants inside tried to claw their way out of the insulated trailer. The Houston-bound truck stopped in Victoria, where the driver unhitched the trailer and drove off.

Seventeen people were found dead in the trailer, and two later died. The driver was ultimately tried on federal charges and sentenced to 34 years in prison.

San Antonio was the scene of another mass tragedy in 2017, when 39 people were found in a truck trailer in a Walmart parking lot. Eight died in the truck, and two later at a hospital. The driver of the vehicle was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

In 1987, 19 men died after being left locked in a boxcar on a railroad siding near Sierra Blanca in far West Texas in what a Border Patrol official at the time called “a tragic series of errors and misjudgments.”

The men had crossed into the United States near El Paso, and were herded by a smuggler into a heavily insulated boxcar with massive thick floors and walls. The Dallas-bound car sat on a siding for hours as the temperature inside soared.

The men tried to escape, but the floors were too thick, a lone survivor later told authorities.

The use of commercial vehicles to smuggle people into the United States from Mexico, or move undocumented individuals already in the country, is a decades-long problem. There is little evidence the problem has lessened with the enhanced presence of National Guard and Texas Department of Public Safety troopers along the Texas-Mexico border this past year as part of Abbott’s controversial border security program, Operation Lone Star.

Earlier this month in Corpus Christi, a 24-year-old Mission resident pleaded guilty to federal smuggling charges for trying to transport 73 people in a tractor-trailer. He was arrested at the Border Patrol checkpoint near Falfurrias after a search of his vehicle found dozens of people inside from Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Peru, Mexico and El Salvador.

Last January, a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper found 28 migrants hidden inside a tractor-trailer’s sleeping cab. The driver has been charged with 28 counts of human smuggling and evading arrest.

DPS through the governor’s Operation Lone Star efforts has tried to highlight how its efforts are working to stop illegal immigration, even as the number of migrants crossing the border into Texas have surged nearly every month.

On the agency’s Facebook site, videos show arrests including one from March in Carrizo Springs, where 76 migrants were discovered inside a commercial truck.

Not all commercial vehicles used are large 18-wheelers. In April 2016, a Michigan man was arrested trying to illegally transport 10 undocumented individuals inside a padlocked Penske rental truck. The defendant told Border Patrol agents that he had picked up the truck in Laredo and was driving it to Corpus Christi. The driver had no key to the truck’s rear cargo area and temperatures were already in the 90s. An X-ray of the truck revealed the truck driver’s human cargo

In recent years, Mexico has stepped up its own policing of smuggling under pressure from the United States. In 2019, more than 200 migrants were discovered hidden in secret compartments in various trucks by an X-ray scanner used by Mexico border officials.

U.S. transportation officials have long waged a public relations campaign against human smuggling via commercial ground vehicles. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration offers training on how to spot smugglers.

The more than a dozen migrants, including children, who remain hospitalized from Monday’s tragedy in San Antonio might qualify for a visa providing legal residency in the United States for migrants who are crime victims or cooperating witnesses, said Norris, the attorney with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.

But some qualifying migrants could have a harder time tapping this immigration benefit because of Title 42, the pandemic health order the Trump and Biden administrations have used more than 2 million times since March 2020 to immediately expel a majority of recent border crossers, including asylum-seekers.

Taylor Levy, an immigration attorney in California, said it’s likely that the surviving migrants could be held in federal custody during the investigation and ultimately kicked out of the country.

“Unfortunately, we have seen in the past that being victimized by one’s smugglers is oftentimes insufficient to protect from being deported,” Levy said.

Terri Langford contributed to this report.

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NRA member complains backlash after mass shootings 'puts us under stress'

When Guy Schwartz heard about the shooting at an elementary school that killed 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde this week, his heart sank, both as a father of two and a lifelong member of the National Rifle Association who for months had eagerly awaited this year’s convention in Houston, the first after the pandemic canceled it for two years.

“It is just unimaginable,” said Schwartz, a 67-year-old insurance broker in Las Vegas, Nev. “I couldn’t imagine sending my kids to school and then not coming home.”

But as he admired the display of new assault rifles at a booth in the sprawling George R. Brown Convention Center downtown, Schwartz said he knew the shooting would once again inflame the tense debate about gun control in the U.S., which he said always seems to vilify responsible gun owners like himself who simply want to protect the Second Amendment.

“Every time we have a whack job that shoots up people, it puts us under stress,” he said.

Thousands of devoted NRA members descended to Houston on Friday, 250 miles east of the site where the children, all 10 years old or younger, were gunned down by an 18-year-old with two legally purchased assault rifles. They attended the event, which was headlined by former President Donald Trump — just 72 hours after the massacre — despite other speakers and musical performers canceling out of respect for the victims and as Democrats and gun control advocates called for the event to be canceled or moved.

In interviews with The Texas Tribune, a dozen NRA convention attendees were horrified by the Uvalde shooting. But they were also unified in their belief that the shooter’s access to guns was not to blame.

Instead, they attributed this attack and others to a broader breakdown in society wrought by the removal of God from public schools, the decline of two-parent households, a perceived leniency toward criminals, social media and an increase in mental illness.

They described feeling ostracized for their beliefs, and not just those on guns. For their refusal to get the COVID-19 vaccine. For their objections to gay people serving as teachers. For their belief in disciplining children through spanking.

“Society is going downhill and the problems are getting bigger and bigger,” said Lyndon Boff, a 67-year-old retiree from Florida. “I hate that so many people got killed in this shooting. But the first thing you have is a president that says ‘we got to do something about it, because it’s guns that killed the people.’ No. It’s their programs teaching children in school that our country is a bunch of crap.”

For many, conversations about gun rights quickly slipped into other cultural topics as they framed any attempt at curtailing gun rights as chipping away at their freedoms, preventing their ability to defend themselves and changing America’s culture as a whole.

“It’s not a gun problem, it’s a society problem,” said Bill Forcht, a 71-year-old retired management executive at the Coca-Cola company who lives in Magnolia, just outside of Houston. “They want to demonize us because we like shooting guns and believe in defending ourselves.”

Their sense of a culture under siege was underscored by more than 1,000 protesters across the street, chanting furiously and waving signs such as “their blood is on your hands” and asking attendees at the convention to “honor the sacrifice of our brave school children who lay down their lives to protect our right to use AR-15s.”

Watching the protests on the sidewalk outside the convention center, a 53-year-old Tennessee woman who would only identify herself by her first name, Anna, said the obvious response to Uvalde would be to arm classroom teachers.

“If you allow somebody to defend themselves the way our Second Amendment was intended… you’ll stop a lot of this,” she said. “Stop pussy-footing with these poeple.”

Her husband Paul, 68, struck a more conspiratorial tone, suggesting without evidence that gun control advocates planned the Uvalde attack to gin up public support for their cause.

Inside the cavernous downtown Houston event space, the convention proceeded as if the type of AR-15 rifle on display in dozens of booths had not been used to kill 21 people just days earlier. Thousands of attendees, who skewed older and whiter than the average demographics of Texas, perused exhibits, attended seminars and voted in a NRA leadership election.

Some of the vendors reflected the gun organization’s roots representing the interests of hunters and sport shooters. Others showcased historic firearms with little modern application. A significant number of vendors and classes promoted guns for self-defense, reflecting the modern NRA’s hardline stance opposing almost any regulation of gun ownership. One seminar offered tips on how to draw a pistol as quickly as possible; a video advertising a vendor’s short-barreled semiautomatic rifle depicted a man using the weapon against a home invader.

The rhetoric of the event’s speakers and attendees conceded a troubling theory: That no government intervention or policy can stop gunmen intent on slaughter from assaulting our schools, offices and other public spaces. They posited that the best society can hope for is to stop them from entering by improving armed security and physical barriers. And if those fail, the responsibility to stop a rampage and triage wounded falls on average citizens with personal weapons.

At an active threats seminar Friday morning, presenter Kris Sacra said training average citizens on how to stop blood loss from gunshot wounds can minimize deaths during mass shootings. He added this is especially important when — as was in the case in Uvalde — first responders cannot or will not intervene quickly.

“Each one of my girls has a ballistic plate in their backpack,” Sacra said. “Each one of my girls knows how to put a tourniquet on.”

The afternoon speakers at the main event echoed those points. Each condemned the Uvalde attack but none of their proposed reforms to prevent future shootings involved restrictions on guns. Gov. Greg Abbott, who canceled his planned in-person speech in favor of a taped one, said new laws would not have stopped the Uvalde shooter because he didn’t bother to follow existing ones — first by bringing a gun onto school grounds and then by committing murder.

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz spoke about “evil” that caused the shooting in Uvalde and has happened “too many damn times.” He said the Second Amendment has “never been more necessary” during a period when he said there were practices of “defunding the police,” increasing homelessness and district attorneys who “refuse to prosecute violent crime.”

He said attempts to restrict access to guns would not work, but offered few ideas for what would. Most notably, he said schools should have single entry points much like federal buildings and suggested installing bulletproof doors and locking classrooms.

“At that single point of entry, we should have multiple armed police officers,” Cruz said. “Or if need be, military veterans trained to provide security and keep our children safe.”

Former President Donald Trump, who criticized Abbott for his absence, made similar suggestions for improving physical security at schools.

Such a lack of any substantive recommendations filled Paul Castro with rage as he stood across the convention center in Discovery Green park, holding a giant photo of his 17-year-old son, David. The teen was shot and killed last year after the family left an Astros baseball game in downtown Houston.

Police have said a twice-convicted felon who should never have had a gun followed Castro onto Interstate 10 after he didn’t let him merge during snarled post-game traffic. He shot into the truck, killing the teen. Castro held David as he died.

“It makes me mad at the same politicians saying the same thing that they have been saying since Columbine,” said Castro, a superintendent at A +UP Charter School in Houston.

Limiting school entrances and arming teachers are laughable, he said, if the topic wasn’t so critical. He noted that police in Uvalde didn’t enter the elementary school for almost an hour, according to authorities. DPS Chief Col. Steve McCraw on Friday blamed a supervising officer who wanted to wait for backup officers and equipment.

“Armed police were on the premises and didn't go in and now you want Miss Smith in elementary school to take a shot?” the superintendent asked. “It’s disingenuous and a lie and it stops politicians from taking responsibility. It is hypocrisy at its worst.”