On July 23, a tractor trailer was found in the parking lot of a San Antonio Walmart packed with dozens of undocumented immigrants. Trapped in the heat of the trailer, eight members of the group were found dead at the scene, while another two died in the hospital later.
According to CNN and interviews conducted by Homeland Security Investigations agents, many of the victims had paid up to thousands of dollars for journeys from Mexico to the United States, moving from rafts to cars, and then from trailer to trailer. The conditions in this particular trailer were unbearable, with no food, water, or air conditioning system.
The day before the victims were found, the temperature in San Antonio had peaked at 100 degrees Fahrenheit. By the time the trailer was discovered, many of the survivors had suffered heat stroke and had heart rates over 130. Two of the hospitalized members were just 15 years old.
Although the incident has been deemed an act of human smuggling by federal authorities, initial reports suspected human trafficking. Perhaps galvanized by this incident, it was announced a few days later on mySanAntonio.com that 37 people had been arrested in July as part of an ongoing investigation of human trafficking in west Texas. The announcement was accompanied by the photos and names of the perpetrators.
The difference between human smuggling and human trafficking lies in the consent behind the transportation. Human smuggling does not involve force or coercion, as human trafficking does by definition.
Though both involve the illegal transportation of people for some “financial or material benefit” to the transporter, in the case of the San Antonio tractor trailer, the migrants had paid the various smugglers for their journey into the United States. Of course, the inhumane manner in which they had been transported was likely not what they had voluntarily committed themselves to.
In the past years, there have been numerous cases of human smuggling, some involving a number of fatalities: 11 died in 2002 in Denison, Iowa, 19 died in 2003 in Victoria, Texas, and numerous other vehicles have been found with living undocumented immigrants inside.
Those recently found in the trailer in San Antonio had actually been transported from Laredo, Texas—not directly from Mexico. On NPR’s All Things Considered, experts from Texas explain why: there are two types of borders in Texas, and one is classic definition of a border, along the Rio Grande, while the other is a series of multiple checkpoints within American territory. It was in order to pass the latter to San Antonio that these migrants boarded the trailer in Laredo, not realizing the conditions they would face. According to the NPR report, traveling by truck is considered safer by many of those attempting to cross the border, as there is no need to walk through the desert or find safe houses.
Yet it is clear from the situation in San Antonio that there is no real “safe” form of human smuggling, and the practice itself devalues human life. The day after the trailer was found, Director for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Thomas Homan stated, “By any standard, the horrific crime uncovered last night ranks as a stark reminder of why human smuggling networks must be pursued, caught and punished.”
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