US President Joe Biden said Tuesday that the deaths of migrants who were in the back of a tractor-trailer in Texas were “horrifying and heartbreaking.”
“Initial reports are that this tragedy was caused by smugglers or human traffickers who have no regard for the lives they endanger and exploit to make a profit,” he said in a statement shortly after arriving in Spain on the second stop of a trip in Europe .
Fifty people died after being left in the back of a tractor-trailer in San Antonio, and authorities said they were likely being transported as part of a smuggling operation.
A city worker heard a cry for help from the truck on a lonely San Antonio back road shortly before 6 pm Monday and discovered the gruesome scene, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said. Temperatures in the area approached 38 C on Monday.
Forty-six people were found dead near the scene, authorities said. Four more later died after being taken to hospitals, said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the county’s top elected official.
Wolff said Tuesday that authorities believe the truck came from Laredo, a border city that is more than 240 kilometers south.
“They had just parked it on the side of the road,” Wolff said. “Apparently had mechanical problems and left it there. The sheriff thinks it came across from Laredo.”
Among the dead were 39 males and 11 females, he said.
Among them, 22 were from Mexico, seven from Guatemala and two from Honduras, Roberto Velasco Alvarez, head of the North America department in Mexico’s Foreign Relations Department, said on Twitter.
“Our condolences,” he tweeted. “All responsible will be brought to justice.”
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At least four people remain in critical condition, according to the hospitals. Among those were a 23-year-old woman in serious condition and an adolescent male in critical condition at University Hospital in San Antonio, Wolff said.
Those taken to the hospital were hot to the touch and dehydrated, and no water was found in the trailer, said Fire Chief Charles Hood.
The tragedy swiftly became a vehicle for political attacks on the Biden administration.
“These deaths are on Biden,” tweeted Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, within hours of the grisly discovery. “They are a result of his deadly open border policies. They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law.”
Biden’s statement slammed “political grandstanding around tragedy.”
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One — where Biden was flying between summits in Germany and Spain — that the administration was focused on the victims and holding human smugglers accountable.
“The fact of the matter is, the border is closed, which is in part why you see people trying to make this dangerous journey using smuggling networks,” she said. “Our prayers are with those who tragically lost their lives, their loved ones as well as those still fighting for their lives. We’re also grateful for the swift work of federal, state and local first responders.”
White House trying to move on from Trump-era policies
Many of former President Donald Trump’s strict border policies remain in place — including Title 42, which prevents many migrants from seeking asylum during the public health emergency caused by the coronavirus even as much of the US has done away with stringent COVID-19 restrictions.
The Title 42 authority denies migrants a chance to seek asylum and be funnelled into the refugee system, so it has encourages repeat attempts because there are no legal consequences for getting caught.
Biden’s administration made plans to end Title 42 effective late May but a federal judge, in response to legal action launched by 24 states, blocked the plan. The Biden administration decision was made without sufficient consideration on the effects the move could have on public health and law enforcement, the Louisiana-based judge ruled.
Title 42 is one of two major surviving Trump-era policies to deter asylum at the border, along with the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), better known as “Remain in Mexico.” The US Supreme Court heard arguments in the spring on the program the Biden administration is trying to end, and is expected to render an opinion on the case as soon as Wednesday.
MPP forces asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for hearings in US immigration court. Activists argued that Mexico does not constitute a safe third country under immigration law, while opponents have argued that it outsources enforcement and therefore gives great leverage over US policy to a foreign country.
US Customs and Border Protection reported 557 deaths on the southwest border in the 12-month period ending Sept. 30, more than double the 247 deaths reported in the previous year and the highest since it began keeping track in 1998. Most are related to heat exposure.
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Other tragedies have occurred long before migrants reached the US border.
In December, more than 50 died when a semitrailer filled with migrants rolled over on a highway in southern Mexico. In October, Mexican authorities reported finding 652 migrants packed into six trailers near the US border. They were stopped at a military checkpoint.