In one of the most devastating tragedies to ever befall migrants in the United States, forty-six people were found dead in the back of an abandoned tractor trailer outside San Antonio, Texas on Monday. Another five people have died since, bringing the death toll to 51. Over a dozen people, among them several children, remain hospitalized. Suffocation or heat exhaustion are the most likely immediate causes of death, with temperatures exceeding 100º F (38ºC) in the area this week. First responders found no water or air conditioning in the trailer.
The responsibility for this tragedy and for the hundreds of other migrant deaths since 2021 lies squarely with the political class that has made immigration all but impossible for most migrants and forced desperate migrants to take the most treacherous travel routes into the United States. The Biden administration, which has maintained, at least substantively, all of Trump’s immigration restriction orders, bears the greatest guilt. Texas Governor Gregg Abbott and the state’s Republican leadership are direct accomplices. Their actions — erecting razor-wire fences, increasing police presence at the border, bolstering check points — have not ended migration. They have only made it more deadly.
Biden campaigned as the humane alternative to Trump on immigration. But his policies over the first year and a half of his administration are barely distinguishable from those of his predecessor. As one Guardian columnist put it, “to the migrants who died in Texas, Biden is no different than Trump.” The wall along the Mexican border — including the approximately 50 miles of new fencing built by Trump and the 650 miles built by previous administrations — remains fully intact. The Biden administration continues to detain migrant children for days, weeks, or months at a time in abhorrent conditions. Raids and deportations are carried out just as regularly as before. Democratic politicians and media figures denounced these policies in the harshest terms when they were enacted by Trump. No protest can be heard from these circles now that Biden oversees the same policies.
Tragedies like these are no anomaly. Ten migrants died under similar circumstances in 2017 — again outside San Antonio — in the back of a trailer in which 200 people traveled without fresh air, water, or food. Just last year, an SUV carrying 13 migrants in Southern California collided with a tractor trailer, killing all passengers. Hundreds more die each year on the journey across dangerous desert terrain in Texas, Arizona, or New Mexico while dozens perish attempting to enter the country by sea. An estimated 650 migrants died along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2021, more than any other year since tracking began.
The news of the deaths in Texas came on the same day as reports emerged that 29 migrants were killed attempting to enter the fortified, Spanish-occupied territory of Melilla in Northern Africa. Human Rights Watch reports Moroccan security forces kicking and beating migrants and the Spanish Guardia Civil launching tear gas at the crowds. The same organization has pointed to evidence of Moroccan authorities digging mass graves to dispose of migrants’ bodies.
It is hardly a coincidence that these two tragedies came to light on the same day. The draconian policies of both the EU — rightly called “Fortress Europe” by immigrant rights activists — and the United States offer virtually no legal options for migrants and asylum seekers to enter their territories, making migrant deaths a daily occurence. While Ukrainian refugees — victims of an enemy state — are granted asylum and offered settlement assistance in the U.S., Black and Brown migrants are forced to enter by the most clandestine and dangerous methods — in the backs of trailers, on overcrowded boats and rafts, on treks across hundreds of miles of desert. At the border, they face militarized border patrol and vigilante groups including those who whipped Haitain migrants.
The migrants who perished outside San Antonio are among the tens of thousands who risk their lives each year to enter the United States. They are the farmers ruined by U.S.-backed free trade policies. They are workers whose wages have plummeted with the imposition — often by force — of neoliberalism. They are men and women whose lives are threatened by the gangs and cartels that flourished in the wake of the so-called War on Drugs. Their circumstances are exacerbated by the heat and extreme weather becoming ever worse as a result of capitalism-driven climate change. In the U.S., they will work the longest hours and receive the lowest pay. They will do so without any benefits or job protections and they will work under the constant Damocles’ sword of deportation.
The Biden administration, far from taking any steps to ameliorate the conditions facing migrants, has continued with the cruelest policies of the Trump era. The result is hundreds dead each year in the most appalling circumstances. Those who reject this unconscionable status quo must demand with all our energy: Let them all in.