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Death of 10 Migrants in San Antonio Spotlights Humanitarian Crisis Unfolding on the Border

Survivors say as many as 200 people were sandwiched into the back of the truck.

Ten immigrants have died and 29 remain hospitalized in San Antonio, Texas, where dozens of undocumented immigrants were discovered packed in the back of a sweltering tractor-trailer. The youngest victims were just 15 years old. When the group of migrants was discovered in a Wal-Mart parking lot in San Antonio, eight men were already dead. Two more men died later, and 29 remain hospitalized. We speak with Eddie Canales, director of the South Texas Human Rights Center.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today’s show in San Antonio, Texas, where 10 undocumented immigrants died from heat exposure and asphyxiation after they and dozens of others were crammed into the back of a sweltering tractor-trailer as part of their journey to enter the United States from Mexico. When the group of migrants was discovered in a Wal-Mart parking lot in San Antonio, eight men were already dead. Two more died later, and 29 remain hospitalized. Authorities say they are investigating it as a human trafficking case. This is San Antonio Police Chief William McManus.

CHIEF WILLIAM McMANUS: We’re looking at human trafficking crime here this evening. Department of Homeland Security is involved. They’re working with us. Homicide will work with them to determine the origin of this — of this horrific tragedy.

AMY GOODMAN: Survivors say as many as 200 people were sandwiched into the back of the truck, at times, during the deadly journey. The youngest victims were just 15 years old.

On Monday, truck driver James Matthew Bradley Jr. appeared in court and was charged under a federal law against knowingly transporting people who are in the country without documentation. He claimed he was unaware his tractor-trailer contained human cargo, until he parked it outside a Wal-Mart store to use the bathroom and heard loud banging noises. Bradley told investigators he then opened the back doors of the trailer and was surprised when dozens of, quote, “Spanish” people ran out. He said he later noticed the dead bodies, saying there were, quote, “bodies just lying on the floor like meat,” unquote. If convicted, Bradley could face the death penalty or life in prison.

We’re joined now by two guests. Eddie Canales is the director of the South Texas Human Rights Center, joining us from Falfurrias, Texas. He joins us by Democracy Now! video stream. And in Los Angeles, we’re joined by Sonia Nazario, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author of Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother. She is a board member of Kids in Need of Defense.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Eddie, let’s begin with you. Tell us what you understood took place, beginning in — well, we could start before this, but in Laredo.

EDDIE CANALES: Well, it’s a scenario that’s probably played out on a — you know, on a very regular basis. For the person to — the driver to say he was not aware is really preposterous, because people are forced to try to circumvent the checkpoints, the border and the checkpoints, on a regular basis, to try to make it into the United States and reach their destination. And so, that scenario, I mean, for 200 people to be — you know, be in a tractor-trailer like that and him being unaware is highly unlikely. You know, a lot of reports say that he was picking up people, and there was a lot of different stops.

So, this is something that is, you know, very, very — it contributes to the crisis that we have on the border in terms of migrant deaths. We have a humanitarian crisis that’s been going on for about 15, 20 years now of people dying on the border in trying to get through. So it’s the result of the deterrent policy that this country has regarding trying to stop people from coming in at the borders and with the checkpoints.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Eddie Canales, speaking of that crisis, on Friday, you found the body of a male migrant when you were checking — who was dead, when you were checking a water station at a ranch in rural Brooks County. Could you talk about Brooks County, in particular, and the unbelievable toll of migrants found dead just in that part of Texas?

EDDIE CANALES: Well, you know, the South Texas Human Rights Center was founded there in Brooks County, in Falfurrias, Texas. Initially, the effort was that people were being buried without DNA not being taken, and so we undertook that advocacy and changed that practice. But between 2004 and 2016, there has been over 665 migrant deaths and bodies and skeletal remains that have been recovered only in Brooks County. It is the corridor there of migration from Central America and from Mexico. And it is — people are trying to circumvent that checkpoint that — it’s about 15 miles from Falfurrias.

So, on Thursday — you know, we try to mitigate and prevent people from dying. We have water stations, over about 115, in Brooks County and surrounding counties and kind of the beginning routes that people may take, during the route and in some of the ranches that people allow the humanitarian efforts. So, I was checking water in one of these stations. And, you know, normally, a telltale sign is buzzards. And then I smelled the decaying, you know, animal or body and looked for a little bit and couldn’t find anything. It was high brush there. And then I moved on to finish my route that — in the ranch there, to finish before it got real dark. And when we came back, we looked again. And sure enough, we found a body of an individual that was spread eagle underneath a — in a clearing underneath a tree.

And it was number 32 in Brooks County this year. So, in the beginning of the year were mostly skeletal remains. But over the summer, we’ve recovered, you know, live bodies there — we recovered remains of full bodies. So, that’s what’s going on there. I mean, last year there were 61, 61 recovery of skeletal remains and bodies. And this year we’re at 32.

So, it is a crisis. It is something that we continue to deal with. And the rescue efforts is — it’s all private land, so we’re working with Border Patrol in terms of trying to, for one, make sure that the 911 system is working in Border Patrol response to migrants in distress. And then, of course, if families reach out to the South Texas Human Rights Center, an NGO, and they’re more comfortable in terms of discussing what they know regarding the track that — the trail that their loved one has taken and where they were left behind. So, last week, I received seven calls of missing persons, of missing migrants. So, you know, the —

AMY GOODMAN: So, Eddie, you discovered this body on Friday. On Saturday, this news comes out, now 10 people dead in that Wal-Mart truck and 29 people in the hospital, being called one of the nation’s deadliest human trafficking episodes that’s taken place in San Antonio. Republican Lieutenant Governor of Texas Dan Patrick blamed the migrant deaths in San Antonio on sanctuary cities. On Sunday, Patrick took to social media to support SB 4, a new anti-sanctuary city law that allows police to check the immigration status of anyone they detain. Patrick wrote on his Facebook page, quote, “Today’s tragedy is why I made passing Senate Bill 4 to ban sanctuary cities — which is now law — a top priority. Sanctuary cities entice people to believe they can come to America and Texas and live outside the law. Sanctuary cities also enable human smugglers and cartels. Today, these people paid a terrible price and demonstrate why we need a secure border and legal immigration reform so we can control who enters our country.” And the senator from Texas, your senator, John Cornyn, said, “Border security will help prevent this Texas tragedy. … Compassion is called for.” Your response to these officials of your state?

EDDIE CANALES: Well, one thing is correct, that we do need immigration reform and to deal with a system that everybody says is broken. We have — and I think the border security question has been tried. Enforcement approach only for the last 15, 20 years has not worked. Migration is down on the border, but the migrant deaths continue. It’s demonstrated by the fact that you have, you know, 9 million, 10 million people in this country already working and in terms of the labor needs of immigrant labor in this country. The policy to — of enforcement-only approach is one that is causing the death. And we need to figure out a way to regularize the labor in a safe and orderly and regular manner that deals with the issues at hand. I mean, labor has demonstrated that it’s needed.

SB 4 is — 500 to 1 voted — testified against in that hearing. Every major police chief in the city — in the state of Texas was against that law and saying that it’s against community security. It keeps immigrants and the immigrant community from reporting crime. So, in sanctuary cities — and it’s not, you know, to say to sanctuary citizens is — the normal thing to do is not for local police to enforce immigration law. That’s not their realm. That’s not their duty. Their duty is to enforce their local laws and keep the community safe. So, it’s proven, time and time again, that those communities are safer. And the effort to create — to compel local police departments in the state to enforce immigration laws is something that we’re still fighting and we’ll continue to fight, in terms of repealing that law.

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