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‘The system is creating death': Calls for immigration reform follow migrant tragedy in San Antonio

Police officers at the scene were people were found dead.
Eric Gay
Associated Press
Police work the scene where dozens of people were found dead in a semitrailer in a remote area in southwestern San Antonio, Monday, June 27, 2022.

Policy experts and immigration attorneys argue that it’s decades of failed immigration policy — not one party or administration — that led to Monday's tragedy and others like it.

Just hours after news broke Monday that dozens of people — later confirmed to be migrants — were found dead inside a tractor-trailer in San Antonio, lawmakers and advocacy groups took part in a partisan blame game.

Gov. Greg Abbott blamed the president in a tweet: “These deaths are on at Biden. They are a result of his deadly open border policies.”

The League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, instead blamed Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, a state-funded and -operated border-security mission, and former President Trump’s immigration policies.

“The politics of President Trump and Governor Abbott to build the wall, deport them all, and Operation Lone Star have all been abysmal failures,” said Domingo Garcia, LULAC’s national president.

But policy experts and immigration attorneys argue that it’s decades of failed immigration policy — not one party or administration — that led to the tragedy and others like it.

“The idea that any one president is responsible for things like this is simply not in line with the facts. And, similarly, we have seen incidents like this occur in countries around the world,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, the policy director at the American Immigration Council, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization. “This is evidence of the systematic failure of the United States and other nations to update their legal immigration systems for a modern era of global displacement.”

The death toll after Monday’s discovery increased to at least 51 Tuesday after some migrants taken to the hospital later died, Texas Public Radio reported. Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrand said 22 of the migrants were Mexican, seven were from Guatemala, two were from Honduras, and the remaining people have not yet been identified.

Though the number of fatalities is staggering compared to other smuggling events, Reichlin-Melnick said, the motivation that led to similar tragedies was the same.

“The last time we updated our legal immigration system was November 1990, months before the first website went online,” he said, referring to the Immigration Act of 1990 that raised the cap on legal migration. “For many migrants [now], there is simply no way to legally immigrate to the United States. And even for people who do have a path to get a visa to the United States, that path is often so expensive and time consuming that it is not practically possible.”

Eduardo Beckett, an El Paso-based immigration attorney who specializes in asylum cases, said Republicans have had success in crafting an anti-immigrant message while Democrats can’t or won’t push back on the policy front.

“The right-wing, the Trump [supporters], the anti-immigrants are loud and more in the open, they don’t hold back, but in reality, it’s the whole system,” he said.

Beckett specifically said that Title 42, a Trump-era, public health policy that allows federal border officials to immediately expel migrants at the United States southern border, likely increased the migrants’ sense of desperation. The policy has been in place since March 2020 and the Biden administration, despite an outcry from immigrant rights groups, kept it in place until earlier this year. (The policy is still in effect due to a court order issued last month.)

“Title 42 should have ended right away, Biden dragged his feet,” he said. “So he’s to blame for that. But this has been going on for years, all the way back to the Clinton administration. I think the system is working exactly as it’s supposed to be. Less people are getting in the legal way.”

That leads more people to turn to criminals and smugglers for a chance at entering the country, Beckett added.

“Things need to change. There needs to be a humane way for people to apply, to come here whether it’s for asylum or whether it’s to work as an agricultural worker. Because the system is creating death, right now. At the border and everywhere around the world.”

Monday’s fatal smuggling attempts came as the number of migrants encountered by U.S. Border Patrol agents at the southern border continues to climb to near-record levels. There were about 239,400 encounters between federal agents and migrants at the southwest border in May, a 2% increase compared to April, according to Customs and Border Protection. Texas continues to see the highest number of apprehensions, especially in the Rio Grande Valley, where there have been more than 333,000 encounters since the beginning of the federal government’s fiscal year in October, according to CBP statistics. That’s followed by the Del Rio Sector, where there have been more than 280,600 in the same time frame.

Reichlin-Melnick said those numbers are somewhat misleading because the statistics include tens of thousands of migrants who have tried to cross multiple times.

“Title 42 incentivizes them to cross the border repeatedly. That's because Title 42 is not an immigration law. It's a public health law,” he said. That means there are no immigration-related consequences for a migrant expelled under Title 42. That’s compared to a conviction for violating federal immigration laws, which bar a migrant from trying to enter for several years.

“A person can cross the border as many times as they want, safe in the knowledge that if caught, they will simply be expelled back to Mexico where they can, if they still have the resources, make another attempt to cross,” he said. “And that means every time somebody is crossing, they're rolling the die. And leads to the possibility of something tragic happening.”

Monday’s horrific discovery has led advocacy groups to urge the Biden administration to make immigration reform a priority. After blasting Abbott and Republicans in its statement, LULAC said Democrats needed to join their GOP colleagues to usher in change.

“It's time for politicians in Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reforms to address these issues and avoid other tragedies,” said Domingo Garcia, LULAC’s national president. “It's also time for the politicians in Austin to stop using immigrants as political piñatas and start treating them as people in this humanitarian crisis, not a police enforcement issue."

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the CEO and president of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said there are “moral and legal obligations” to adopt a system that is fair to people seeking safety.

“Our nation requires a reckoning with the fatal fallout of its deterrence-only framework. Real reforms are sorely needed to move us past the partisan politics that have plagued discussions of asylum and our southern border for far too long,” she said in a tweet.

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Got a tip? Email Julián Aguilar at can follow Julián on Twitter @nachoaguilar.