SAN ANTONIO, Texas – So much death, so much pain, in such a small space.
It hurts to think of those limp bodies, asphyxiated, as if they had been boiled from the inside with an enormous fever that heats up everything around it. The organs stop working, followed by a sleep that kills. Many were surely jammed into the corners, looking for air in a truck trailer that could not be opened from the inside. The air conditioning was not working. Why? Such a foolish and fatal mistake. It must be terrible, the anguish of someone who knows there’s no escape, that the person next to him already fainted, and he will be next. Or she.
The water ran out. And so did life.
Such despair, by those who scream and no one hears them! The truck was stopped on a little-used road on the outskirts of San Antonio and the sun, the brutal sun, was imposing another heat wave in southern Texas. They are increasingly frequent, so much so that in other parts of the world they are giving heat waves names, as if they are hurricanes. This is where immigration and climate change meet. The migrants died on a Monday when temperatures hit 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The trailer became an oven, literally. But if it had happened on Tuesday, they might have survived. There was a storm in San Antonio on Tuesday. It rained a lot, and the temperatures dropped considerably. Damned Monday.
And damned also a cruel system that kills so many migrants.
With 53 dead, this is the worst immigration tragedy in US history. But we would be wrong to assume it is a unique event. Almost every day migrants die on the way north. In the last fiscal year, 557 migrants died along the border, according to the US Border Patrol. That’s a lot more than the 254 who died in 2020. And 2022 is on the way to become another deadly year.
It is a story that repeats itself. In 2003, I went to Victoria, Texas, for a similar story. Dozens of migrants had been jammed into a truck trailer. They also did not have air conditioning or enough water. Unable to open the doors, they punched a small hole – near the rear brake lights – and took turns breathing the fresh air. But it was not enough. When the parked trailer was discovered, there were 17 migrants dead, including a five year old boy. Two adults died later in the hospital.
After those reports nearly 20 years ago, I wrote a book – Dying to Cross– as a warning, thinking that this type of tragedy would never happen again. But I was wrong.
When my boss, the tireless María Martínez, calls me at home, I tremble. Almost always, it is something grave. The previous time she did it I wound up in the war in Ukraine. And on Monday she just asked me if I was aware of what was happening in Texas. “This is bad, Mr. Ramos,” she told me. And she was right. I packed overnight and the next morning I was on a plane for San Antonio.
It was deja vu. It was a trailer like the one before, abandoned and without a driver along another desolate road. The details were nearly the same. And the pain was enormous, multiplied by 53. From 2003 to 2022, the only change was the number of victims.
I believe this is the time to admit that this is the immigration system all of us have allowed. We have been talking for decades about something better, and the politicians simply can’t come to an agreement. But it is a cruel, unfair and deadly system. I have been following the fight between President Joe Biden and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott since the tragedy in San Antonio, and it is frustrating. Abbott blames Biden’s “open border” policies and the president replies that this is not the time to politicize a tragedy, and he blames people smugglers.
In the meantime, migrants continue to die along the border. And with the end of the Remain in Mexico program following a Supreme Court ruling, many more will try to cross. Difficult months are ahead.
We already know walls don’t work. The border between Mexico and the United States is porous and easy to cross, and it has been so since its creation after the war in 1848. That has not changed, and will not change. It’s normal, natural, that the most poor and vulnerable people in the continent, who live in the south, will move to a safer and more prosperous place to the north, the United States. To flee war, gangs, poverty, poor health care and education systems, corruption and the lack of opportunities is not a crime. And if we add the terrible economic consequences of the pandemic, we have the perfect storm.
During the month of May, more than 239,000 people were detained for entering the country illegally. That is a record. And it means that during the current fiscal year, about 2 million people may arrive without documents. Another record. That is reality. It is a simple issue of supply and demand. And the United States has the capacity and moral obligation to protect many of those refugees. The problem is that there’s no efficient, generous and fair system to handle all of those people.
We must accept that the 1 million legal immigrants the United States allows each year is totally arbitrary and insufficient. For each migrant who arrives legally, two arrive without documents. The system has to adapt to this new reality. To impose quotas, as we have seen, has no impact at all on the border.
Conclusion: The United States must expand legal immigration and create new systems to avoid more tragedies like San Antonio and Victoria. Death must never be part of the immigration equation. If future migrants and refugees had safe and trusted ways to enter the United States, I am sure they would not risk crossing the Rio Grande with their children, a daring desert crossing in the middle of the night or a metal box without air conditioning in the middle of the summer.
But I am not very hopeful. All the hopes I once had were busted.
So here I am, waiting for Maria’s next call.