The ghastly circumstances surrounding the deaths of more than 50 migrants, mostly Mexicans and Central Americans, who perished while locked in an oven-hot tractor-trailer near San Antonio this week are stunning, tragic and outrageous. But they are not unique — not to this moment, nor to the Biden administration, nor even to the United States.
Migrants’ desperation for a better life, compounded by gang violence and drug cartels in Central America and Mexico, policy dysfunction in Washington, U.S. judicial decisions, and, critically, criminal networks of human traffickers have all contributed to the grisly toll at the southwest border and to similarly horrific incidents in recent months and years. This was not the first such unspeakable episode. It won’t be the last.
That fact did nothing to deter Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who stuck to the Republican playbook by cynically blaming the migrants’ deaths on what he called President Biden’s “open-border policy.” A similar calamity — also in San Antonio, and also involving a tractor-trailer packed with desperate victims of human traffickers — caused the deaths of 10 migrants in 2017, with dozens more hospitalized. Yet Mr. Abbott, elected two years earlier, somehow failed to blame that tragedy on then-President Donald Trump, a fellow Republican. Nor does Mr. Abbott seem to get the international news. Other fatal disasters have left a trail of migrants dead in trucks and trailers elsewhere — Chinese and Vietnamese in England; Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis in Austria.
It is the case that U.S. Border Patrol agents have stopped more migrants in recent months than at any point in decades, and at least tens of thousands more have managed to cross the border, elude authorities and make their way through cities, including San Antonio, a major transit point, on their way to points north in the United States. The Biden administration’s mixed messaging — it has told migrants not to come, while also seeking more humane policies — is one factor in the current torrent of migration. But it is only one.
The absence of any workable legal system that would admit migrants systematically, in numbers that would meet the U.S. labor market’s demand, is the original sin of the chaos at the border. That is Congress’s bipartisan failure, a symptom of systemic paralysis for many years. More recently, a public health rule has had the effect of incentivizing unauthorized migrants to make multiple attempts to cross the border. The rule, imposed by the Trump administration, retained for more than a year by the Biden administration, and now frozen in place by Republican judges, allows border authorities to swiftly expel migrants, but with no asylum hearings or criminal consequences for repeated attempts to cross the border. That has been a boon to migrant smuggling networks.
In response to the grim news from San Antonio, Mr. Biden vowed a renewed law enforcement crackdown on those networks. That’s a fine goal. Yet without addressing the social, structural and legislative problems driving illegal migration, it is very unlikely to prevent more horrifying scenes from unfolding along the border.