The dangerous journeys of undocumented migrants

The migrant deaths in San Antonio are only the latest human smuggling tragedy

At least 51 undocumented migrants are dead after being found in a tractor-trailer outside San Antonio on Monday. Republicans are blaming President Biden over his "open border policies," while Democrats called attention to "the plight of migrants seeking refuge." Here's everything you need to know:

What happened in Texas?

An abandoned tractor-trailer containing the dead bodies of at least 46 undocumented migrants was discovered on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas, on Monday. Another 16 migrants — including four children — were transported to the hospital to receive treatment for heat stroke, exhaustion, and dehydration. At a press conference Tuesday, the overall death toll was updated to at least 51.

Police cars, ambulances, and Catholic priests descended on the gruesome scene as first responders placed the deceased in body bags. San Antonio Police Department Chief William McManus said no drinking water was found inside the trailer, which was discovered by city workers who heard cries for help coming from the truck shortly before 6:00 p.m. "We're not supposed to open up a truck and see stacks of bodies in there," Fire Chief Charles Hood told the Texas Tribune. "None of us come to work imagining that." Hood added that although the vehicle "was a refrigerated tractor-trailer," there was "no visible working AC unit on that rig."

Roberto Velasco Alvarez, the director-general for North America in Mexico's Secretariat of Foreign Affairs, confirmed that among the dead are at least 22 Mexicans, seven Guatemalans, and two Hondurans.

How have politicians responded?

Republican politicians slammed President Biden for his "deadly open border policies," with Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott arguing the migrant deaths show "the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law." Texas Sen. Ted Cruz (R) described the tragedy as "absolutely horrific and heartbreaking" and likewise cited Biden's "open border" as to blame, claiming "the most vulnerable are paying for it with their lives." Republican Texas Representative Tony Gonzales also called out the Biden administration in a tweet, writing, "Imagine being abandoned inside an 18-wheeler left to die … will [Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas] even mention their names?" 

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre argued that the deadly crash — and the migrant crisis that produced it — are not the result of "open border policies" but of a system that places too many restrictions on immigration. "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 told reporters Tuesday, adding that the administration would "continue to take action to disrupt human smuggling networks." Democratic Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke similarly called for "expanded avenues for legal migration" and highlighted the need to "dismantle human smuggling rings."

Do migrants often die in incidents like these?

A migrant's life is a dangerous one. As many as one-third of women traveling north through Mexico toward the U.S. border are sexually assaulted during the journey. Many others lose their lives as smugglers pack them into hot, crowded, airless spaces for extended periods of time. The Dallas Morning News notes that, in 2003, the bodies of 19 migrants were found locked in a truck southeast of San Antonio. Another 10 migrants died in 2017 in a truck parked outside a San Antonio Walmart.

In December, a truck transporting a group of more than 100 mostly Central American migrants through Mexico flipped over, killing 54 of them and injuring several dozen. Smugglers — known as coyotes or polleros ("chicken herders") — are often affiliated with violent drug cartels and frequently abandon their customers in the wilderness after charging them up to $15,000 for passage to the United States.

The International Organization for Migration reported that in the 12 months preceding October 2021 — a period that begins shortly before Biden's electoral victory and includes his first nine months in office — 557 migrants died attempting to cross the border, more than double the number who died during the previous year.

What about migrants in other parts of the world?

Similar incidents have been reported among migrants traveling to Europe from war-torn areas in North Africa and the Middle East. In 2015, a truck containing the decomposing bodies of 71 migrants was discovered beside an Austrian highway. The smugglers, fearing discovery by law enforcement, had abandoned the truck and left them to die, The New York Times reported.

Four years later, 39 Vietnamese migrants died in a shipping container while crossing the English Channel to the United Kingdom. "I can't breathe," one man said as he left his final phone message. "I want to come back to my family. Have a good life." Another of the migrants attempted to make an air hole with a metal rod, denting the roof of the container but failing to pierce it as the temperature hit 104 degrees Fahrenheit and oxygen levels plummeted.  

On Christmas Day in 2021, The Washington Post reported on a deadly shipwreck off the coast of Greece that left 16 migrants dead. According to the United Nations' Missing Migrants Project, 24,184 migrants have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean since 2014.

And, on Friday, at least 23 migrants were killed in Morocco after some 2,000 of them tried to storm the border fence surrounding the Spanish enclave of Melilla.


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