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Deaths of 53 migrants in Texas stoke grief, fears of a deadly summer

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)

SAN ANTONIO — The woman pulled from a sweltering tractor-trailer abandoned on a road near a stretch of South Texas known as a corridor for human smuggling opened her eyes after two religious leaders entered her hospital room.

She was worried and weak from a journey whose end was supposed to mark the start of a new chapter in the United States — but instead brought death for 53 migrants making the trip with her.

“We asked if she’s from Guatemala,” said Antonio Fernandez, the head of the Catholic Charities in San Antonio. “She said, ‘Yes.’ ”

The breathtaking toll of the deadliest smuggling incident of its kind on U.S. soil gripped San Antonio on Tuesday as the medical examiner worked to match identification cards with bodies, the death toll rose and investigators detained three people. With nearly a dozen still hospitalized, they asked the public to pray for those still fighting for their lives.

In a place where traffickers’ disregard for life is a painful reality, the latest calamity is stoking fears in South Texas and the Southwest that rising temperatures and rising volumes of border crossers could make this summer a season of unprecedented death along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“As horrific as this is, it is not the only time,” said Doris Meissner, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute who ran the nation’s immigration system from 1993 to 2000 when it was under the Justice Department. “It will not be the only time.”

Two Mexican nationals appeared in federal court Tuesday on weapons charges in the case after officials said they traced the tractor-trailer’s state registration to a house in San Antonio. City police found multiple weapons inside, including several handguns and a multi-caliber rifle.

Authorities said they arrested Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao and Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez after they left the house in separate trucks. Officials said in court records that both men admitted to being citizens of Mexico who had overstayed their visas and were in the United States illegally.

The men did not enter a plea and information about their lawyers was not immediately available. Both wore olive green T-shirts at a first appearance at U.S. District Court in San Antonio on Tuesday and said they understood the charges but otherwise did not speak.

At least 22 of the victims were Mexican nationals, while seven were originally from Guatemala and two were Honduran, a Mexican government official in the United States said. The dead include 39 males and 12 females, Bexar County leaders said. Authorities said they had potential identities for 34 of the deceased — while for more than a dozen they did not even have a nationality. The process of identifying the dead could take days, if not weeks.

“There are no names,” said Jordan McMorrough, a spokesperson for the city’s archbishop. “That’s one of the tragedies of the situation, is that no one has a name.”

People gathered at a community vigil on June 29 to remember dozens of migrants who died in a sweltering tractor trailer in San Antonio. (Video: Reuters)

The deaths come amid a record migration influx across the Mexico border, with the latest U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures showing immigration arrests in May rose to the highest levels ever documented. Authorities are coping with a major increase in all types of smuggling as people flee violence, corruption and poverty. U.S. Border Patrol agents across the Southwest are spending more time responding to 911 calls from migrants in distress.

Those seeking to evade detection by hiring smugglers are typically adults from Mexico and Central American countries who are far more likely to be deported or “expelled” under the pandemic-era Title 42 public health order. And Interstate 35 — one of the country’s busiest trucking arteries, near where the tractor-trailer was found Monday — is frequently used by smugglers. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has announced several arrests related to tractor-trailer incidents this year.

“Tractor-trailers are common because these criminal organizations are trying to maximize profit,” said Craig Larrabee, acting special agent in charge for the San Antonio office of Homeland Security Investigations, ICE’s investigative branch. “It’s about money, and they’re more profitable when you put more people into them.”

Temperatures in San Antonio have been in the triple-digit range for weeks and inside the refrigerated trailer there was no air-conditioning unit or water located. In similar fatal cases, temperatures have risen to above 173 degrees inside a trailer.

“This incident underscores the need to go after the multibillion-dollar criminal smuggling industry preying on migrants and leading to far too many innocent deaths,” President Biden said.

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei described the tragedy as “unforgivable” in a tweet. He called for hardening penalties, including extradition to the United States, against those involved in human trafficking. The Mexican government is sending a team to the Texas city to investigate, help identify and notify families, and eventually, repatriate the victims’ bodies.

Authorities in San Antonio said they were alerted to the scene after a worker heard a cry for help and went to investigate. The trailer door was ajar when law enforcement arrived but those inside were too weak to get themselves out, San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said. Some of the victims were moaning when emergency personnel arrived.

“Looks like quite a few of them are already deceased,” an emergency responder called in to dispatch, according to a recording published on the website Broadcastify and reviewed by The Washington Post. “None of them are able to talk as of yet but we do have a lot of snoring respirations.”

“We are going to need more medics,” a breathless firefighter relayed moments later.

The truck was found on Quintana Road, a sparsely populated road that runs alongside a set of railroad tracks and a handful of small trucking and automotive businesses. Cynthia Rocamontes, who runs Leo’s Truck and Trailer Repair, said she saw six small SUVs driven by young women Monday around noon, which caught her attention since the street usually doesn’t see much traffic.

“I thought, ‘It’s not a funeral, why would they be coming this way?’ I thought it was odd,” she said.

Marvin Hass, 42, owns several businesses nearby including King’s Auto Parts, where he was about to close up on Monday evening when he heard a siren. As he looked outside, he heard another siren, this one coming from a police vehicle speeding by.

He said he drove to the back of his 15-acre lot, stood in the bed of his pickup truck and peered over an eight-foot-tall steel-paneled fence. He saw police officers pulling out yellow tape to close off the area. Then he saw the bodies, he said. No one appeared alive.

“They were actually picking them up and carrying them out, and then covering them with a yellow plastic,” Hass said. When he saw the tractor-trailer — a red cab with a white trailer — Hass remembered he’d seen the same truck, or one just like it, driving around the area just before noon.

“We saw this truck stop and turn around, he pulled out where we thought it was one of those delivery drivers, but we didn’t pay attention, you know?” he said.

The scene in Texas after 46 migrants were found dead in a sweltering tractor-trailer

In recent months, authorities have made multiple arrests in tractor-trailer smuggling operations. In February, U.S. agents found 73 migrants in the back of an 18-wheeler at a highway checkpoint near Falfurrias, Tex. The driver, Leonardo Davila Jr., 24-year-old resident of Mission, Tex., pleaded guilty in June to illegally transporting undocumented migrants, according to ICE.

In another incident in April, 67-year-old David William McKeon of Laredo, Tex., was arrested along Interstate 35 after Border Patrol agents found 124 migrants, including two minors, in the back of his tractor-trailer. And in May, Louisiana resident Roderick DeWayne Chisley, 47, was convicted in connection with transporting 52 migrants along I-35 in the back of a stolen tractor-trailer.

Central American migrants traveling to the United States in smugglers’ trucks face peril in Mexico as well. In December, 57 were killed when a tractor-trailer crammed with migrants rolled off the highway and crashed in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas.

Millions of other adults have boarded overloaded panga boats racing for Southern California beaches, navigated choppy seas on crude vessels, followed smugglers known as “coyotes” into the punishing desert, traversed rugged, wild mountains and risked drowning in the Rio Grande.

With the surge has come more deaths. Authorities have reported dozens who have died while trying to cross the Rio Grande. 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.

The U.S. government does not maintain a comprehensive count of migrant deaths along the border, because bodies and remains recovered by local or state officials are not always added to federal tallies. At least 650 people died in 2021 attempting to cross Mexico’s border with the United States, higher than in any year since 2014, according to the United Nations International Organization for Migration.

“It’s a lot of strain for us to be doing all this type of work, it’s unbelievable,” said Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber, whose deputies found six dead, two women drowned in the river and four men on a remote ranch, on Monday. So far this year, 150 people were found dead in the Del Rio sector alone. Sometimes, all they find are bones. “And we’ve still got six months left,” he said.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) was quick to blame the president for the tragedy, writing that “these deaths are on Biden” in a tweet. He and other GOP candidates running in the November elections have been hammering Democrats over border security issues.

Later Tuesday, Biden called out “political grandstanding around tragedy,” promising to do everything possible to stop human smugglers and traffickers.

11 Haitian women dead after smuggling vessel capsizes near Puerto Rico

But immigrant advocates say it’s federal border policies that are pushing people to make extreme choices and put their lives in the hands of criminals. The border’s ports of entry have been closed to most asylum seekers since 2020, giving families seeking protection few other options for entering the country.

“There’s a direct relationship between U.S. deterrence strategies at the border and migrants dying at the border,” said Fernando Garcia, executive director of the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights. “The numbers will go higher.”

They also slammed Abbott and other Republicans for blaming Biden’s policies for the tragedy, noting that smuggling deaths have plagued the nation’s borders for decades. The U.S. government has spent billions on a border wall and heightened enforcement, but advocates say the buildup has spurred migrants to take more dangerous routes.

Twenty-five percent of border-crossers arrested in May had been detained in the past year, up from 7 percent in fiscal year 2019, federal data shows. Recidivism spiked after former president Donald Trump shut down the land borders at the start of the pandemic. Biden tried to repeal those and other policies, but Republicans in Texas and other states sued to keep them in place.

Greg Casar, the Democratic nominee to fill a congressional seat representing parts of San Antonio and Austin, said the United States can prevent deaths by creating safer ways for migrants, such as expanding asylum processing on the borders or passing an immigration bill so that their U.S. relatives can sponsor them for residency.

“Nobody in Texas can seriously believe that Greg Abbott cares about immigrant families,” he said. “Governor Abbott has been pushing immigrant families into the shadows and that results in people dying, trying to go across the river, it results in people burning to death inside of trucks like this.”

Hass, an immigrant from Lebanon, recalled calling his wife to tell her what he was seeing Monday as police began pulling bodies out of the tractor-trailer. She ordered him to leave and soon, a Texas Ranger did the same thing, he said.

“I’m Middle Eastern, my wife is Hispanic, we all come from different countries and stuff,” he said. “So it’s very hard whenever you see people trying to make a better life and come into this country and they end up dying this way. It’s just insane. And it’s very sad.”

Silvia Foster-Frau in Washington contributed to this report.