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US Immigration Policy Is to Blame for the Horrific Mass Death in San Antonio

To blame heat or smugglers alone dishonors those whose lives were robbed by local, state and federal immigration policy.

A first responder walks through the scene where a tractor-trailer was discovered with migrants inside, outside San Antonio, Texas, on June 27, 2022.

One hundred human beings were inside an 18-wheeler without water or air conditioning in the blistering 100-degree Texas heat. Fifty of them are now dead. Sixteen more people were taken to a hospital — including four children. That was this Monday in San Antonio. This is the deadliest of such tragedies in recent years, but it is not the first. In 2003, 19 migrants were found dead inside 18-wheelers in Victoria, Texas. In 2017, there were 10 migrants found dead in 18-wheelers — also in San Antonio.

Summer is the peak season of deadly state-produced violence. Anybody who has done decarceration work will tell you that summer is one of the most dreaded times for heavily policed and imprisoned communities. Summer is also when the most migration-related deaths occur.

Two hours from San Antonio, a migrant attempting to reach a local ranch for a drink of water was found dead yesterday in Kinney County, Texas. The Sheriff’s Office report states: “It’s the 5th dead illegal alien so far this year in the County.” The disregard for migrant lives has never been clearer.

The news reported heat stroke and dehydration as the main causes of death in San Antonio. Though that’s certainly what autopsies will reveal, to blame the heat or the smugglers alone would be to dishonor the human beings whose lives have been robbed by local, state and federal immigration policy. Whether related to border crossing or detention, every single migration-related death is preventable.

On Monday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott took to Twitter to blame President Biden for the deaths. The way in which migrant lives are used as political pawns denies people basic respect and dignity, even in death. As a formerly undocumented immigrant organizer who has called Texas home for the past 20 years, I can tell you what we see from the ground: One of those men is actively trying to kill us, while the other one is leaving us to die.

In March of last year, Governor Abbott launched Operation Lone Star, a $4 billion political operation that deployed law enforcement and national guard members from all over the state (and a few other states) to flood border communities and arrest migrants with misdemeanor trespassing charges to then be sent to state prisons for up to a year. Over 3,000 people have been charged and imprisoned through Operation Lone Star since its inception. This is Abbott’s attempt to create his own immigration enforcement and deterrence program.

We in Texas have been urging the White House and the Department of Homeland Security to stop enabling Operation Lone Star, and the Department of Justice to begin an investigation. On both fronts, there’s only been inaction — inaction whose end result, predictably, is premature death.

There is often a villain and a savior narrative along partisan lines that defines the dialogue on immigration policy in the United States. But these deaths remind me of James Baldwin’s powerful statement:

I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it. And I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it … it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

Those in power are responsible for this violence. They are the authors of devastation regardless of whether their actions are considered a crime by the legal system, and regardless of whether they aggressively push xenophobic agendas or fail to intervene to protect the victims of those policies.

Just last week, Democrats in Congress approved an amendment to the DHS budget bill that would extend the racist and inhumane Title 42 policy that prevents people from seeking asylum at the border. President Biden failed to end the policy when he first came into office, knowing full well that it was put in place by Stephen Miller to end migration.

Biden’s hesitation enabled Governor Abbott and other Republicans to politicize the issue creating the conditions for this type of tragedy to take place. With Title 42 and other policies foreclosing safer pathways, migrants will continue to enter the U.S. through pathways like the one that ended in mass death in San Antonio yesterday.

As a political system, Texas is a violence and death-oriented state. From the attacks on transgender youth, to the Uvalde tragedy, to the trigger ban on reproductive rights, our state mass-produces death and then spreads it to other places.

The federal government, while publicly showing outrage and disdain for places like Texas and the broader South, is an accomplice and enabler of the violence that robbed migrants of their lives in San Antonio this week.

The embrace of policies that orient toward care and health — rather than exclusion and violence — could have prevented yesterday’s mass deaths. Yet even though those lives were robbed by death-making policies, those human beings were much more than that. So are the survivors.

Those who died are human beings with loved ones — with strength, with hope, with faith, with stories that should matter to all of us. Their search for a more bearable life, for survival, for resources and for sustenance was met with death instead of welcoming and care.

As we learn their names, may they weigh heavy on our tongues, and may no one dare say they did not die in vain — they did. This is the root cause that people need to reckon with: In the absence of life-sustaining migration policies, pointless state-sanctioned deaths will continue.

We in Texas will keep doing what we can to keep each other safe, even through what on most days seem like impossible conditions.

Those in other places should take note. The policies and technologies that facilitate death in Texas will not remain within our state borders, and organizing to undo Biden’s deadly indifference and Abbott’s active assaults is the only way forward.

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