The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A grisly tragedy shows there are no ‘open borders’ for migrants

The discovery of at least 53 dead inside a sweltering tractor trailer in Texas is putting a new light on an old problem: human smuggling across borders. (Video: Lee Powell/The Washington Post)
6 min

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The death count kept rising Tuesday. At least 51 migrants were confirmed dead a day after dozens of bodies were found in the back of an abandoned, sweltering tractor-trailer. Mexican consular officials said that of those identified, 22 of the victims were Mexican nationals, seven were from Guatemala and two from Honduras.

The grisly discovery is likely the deadliest human smuggling event on U.S. soil. In its horror, you could see a perfect storm of maladies: The desperation of migrants seeking any way into the United States; the cynicism of the “coyotes,” or people traffickers, exploiting that desperation; the existing restrictive U.S. measures that incentivize such risks; and the record temperatures and drought in Texas that led to the migrants’ hideous death.

Then came the politics. Not long after the bodies were found, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said the deaths were President Biden’s fault. “They are a result of his deadly open border policies,” tweeted the governor, who is in the throes of a reelection campaign. “They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law.” Numerous other Republican politicians echoed the “open borders” charge.

Biden fired back shortly after landing in Madrid for a NATO summit. “Exploiting vulnerable individuals for profit is shameful, as is political grandstanding around tragedy,” he said in a statement. He called the deaths “horrifying and heartbreaking,” and said that “this incident underscores the need to go after the multi-billion dollar criminal smuggling industry preying on migrants and leading to far too many innocent deaths.”

The “open border” canard has been a standard talking point of the American right for years. Never mind that the United States maintains arguably one of the world’s most rigorous and difficult visa-application processes for citizens seeking entry from most parts of the world. Never mind that the United States in recent years, including under the Biden administration, is resettling refugees at record lows. Never mind that the United States is seizing and immediately expelling record numbers of illegal migrants at its southern border.

For the Republican establishment, let alone its more extremist wing, any discussion of more humane policies at the border or the inefficacy and waste of spending billions of dollars on things like a wall is tantamount to an “open borders mentality.” Former president Donald Trump and his allies successfully ginned up hard-line support over the belief that his Democratic opponents were intent on flooding the country with undocumented migrants, a claim which echoed far-right conspiracy theories that inspired, among other things, mass shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue and an El Paso Walmart during Trump’s time in office.

Biden’s critics claim that his intent to wind back some of Trump’s border policies has spurred a spike in migrants trying their luck. Yet many of those Trump-era measures remain in place because of judicial intervention. That includes the “Title 42” provision enacted by Trump, which used the emergency context of the pandemic to allow border enforcement officials to expel migrants before they can be bureaucratically processed or attempt to claim asylum. It also includes the controversial “Remain in Mexico” protocols that sent would-be asylum seekers at the border back into Mexico.

The Biden administration has attempted to focus the matter on the root causes driving migration from countries to the south, including thorny legacies of economic neglect and governmental corruption, as well as ongoing humanitarian crises, the effects of natural disasters and the toll of the pandemic. But his adversaries say that such efforts are secondary to deterring migrants from entering U.S. territory.

“The United States is not responsible for solving the transnational crime, migration management, and border security issues in Mexico and northern Central America,” a recent Republican minority Senate Committee on Foreign Relations report on migration concluded. It recommended, instead, that the administration “use all available tools to secure the border” right now, including Trump’s Title 42 move and “Remain in Mexico” policy.

But there’s minimal evidence that these measures are the panacea their backers claim them to be. The Title 42 expulsions — including more than 1 million while Biden has been president — carry no legal consequences and therefore often encourage migrants to cross again. At a congressional hearing in May, a senior Department of Homeland Security official even said the policy was inflating the numbers of illegal border crossings and that the Biden administration’s approach would instead impose tougher consequences on those apprehended.

And they certainly do not prioritize the safety of would-be migrants. The “Remain in Mexico” program, whose fate is now in the hands of the Supreme Court’s right-wing majority, has left myriad asylum seekers vulnerable to the predations of cartels and human traffickers operating within Mexico. Would-be asylum seekers are forced to take greater risks.

“Many of the people trapped in that truck in San Antonio could have approached a land port of entry ... and asked the [Customs and Border Protection] officials there to apply for asylum in the United States, as is their legal right,” noted the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group. “But that is impossible, as Title 42 has left the ports of entry closed to asylum seekers.”

The deaths in San Antonio were far from an isolated occurrence, as the numbers of migrants attempting to cross in more dangerous and remote areas spikes. “Authorities have reported dozens who have died while trying to cross the Rio Grande,” my colleagues reported. “More migrants are falling from 30-foot segments of the border wall than ever before in the El Paso and San Diego areas. And the number of migrants found dead from heat exhaustion and exposure, primarily in Arizona and South Texas, has also jumped.”

At least 650 people died in 2021 attempting to cross Mexico’s border with the United States, higher than in any year since 2014, they reported. The border is hardly open. But it’s definitely deadly.