As It Happens·Q&A

'It's unspeakable,' says Texas archbishop who visited survivors of abandoned tractor-trailer

Last month, Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller was comforting people in Uvalde, Texas, after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers in an elementary school. Now he’s trying to help people in the aftermath of yet another overwhelming tragedy.

Gustavo García-Siller calls for immigration reform after 50 die in suspected human smuggling operation

An archbishop in a white robe and a red skullcap is pictured in profile bending his head, closing his eyes and holding his fist to his mouth. Two others men in similar outfits and visible behind him, all facing forward in the same direction.
Gustavo García-Siller, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, takes part in a mass on May 25, the day after the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting. Now García-Siller is trying to comfort those who survived a suspected human smuggling operation in San Antonio. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

Story Transcript

Last month, Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller was comforting people in Uvalde, Texas, after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers in an elementary school. Now he's trying to help people in the aftermath of yet another overwhelming tragedy.

Fifty people are dead after the tractor-trailer they were riding in was found abandoned on a scorching hot day in San Antonio.

Authorities believe they had crossed the border in a human smuggling operation, and were left inside the trailer to die when the driver had mechanical issues. 

Forty-six people were found dead at the scene, and four more later died after being taken to hospitals. Sixteen people were hospitalized, including four children.

García-Siller, the archbishop of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, spent Monday night and Tuesday morning going from hospital to hospital to offer support for those who survived. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Ginella Massa. 

Archbishop, what went through your mind when you heard about these tragic deaths of so many migrants?

This is like a horror, horror reality.

We just went through the experience in Uvalde. But those people in Uvalde, they have a community. They have the support of their local leadership. They were home in that sense. 

But this one is people that I visited in six hospitals since last night. And just in my mind was [that] I know what ... their plight [is]. Because I am an immigrant myself. And I have been, since I came to the United States, working with immigrants.

And so I have heard stories for three decades, you know. But something that caught my attention in this case was that there were so many in one trailer, and without water. We have been [having temperatures] in the three digits for the last few weeks in San Antonio, in Texas. And this is inhumane. And knowing that they took that risk .... because their situation at home was worse.

And then that trailer abandoned — they were abandoned. It's not the trailer. People were abandoned there. That's the reality of the migrants that come from the southern border.

We are a first-world country, and not to be able to have that gaze to look at them with compassion and understanding, with listening? It's just unspeakable. It's just a disaster.- Gustavo García-Siller, archbishop of the Archdioces of San Antonio 

As we saw in the situation in Ukraine, [people] crossing to Poland and Romania and all the other countries in the European world. That's so different, you know. But here in the United States, we have not done a significant move regarding legislation to improve our ways of dealing with humans that cross the southern border.

Visiting the hospitals [is] something that, I mean, I haven't had too much time to really process. But they were asking me, "Who are you coming to see?" I said, "I don't know." And they said, "Well, we don't have the names." Because the situation is under investigation.

It just hit me. I mean, I know the procedure and I understand it … but to have no names? That is the reality. They are nonexistent. Migrants are not people for our society here.

And immediately, I heard some comments from leaders in the area that, they were really sad, you know. It was nothing about compassion. Immediately, the [people in] political world [tried] to get some gain with this. What is the gain there? It's 50 people dead.

A dark picture, taken on the side of the road at night, shows three men in robes, heads bowed, huddled together.
Local priests from the San Antonio Archdiocese stand near the scene where an abandoned tractor-trailer was discovered outside San Antonio. Fifty people died after being left inside in the scorching Texas sun. (Sergio Flores/AFP/Getty Images)

You tweeted last night that the lack of courage to deal with immigration reform is killing and destroying lives. Tell me more about what you meant by that.

That means that our [political] bodies — could be at state levels or the federal levels — they have not been able to talk seriously and well about human beings who come to the country from the southern border.

It's just like, everybody's bad coming from there. Everybody is non-existent. And as I said, abandoned. No names. That's the reality of it.

Knowing the dangers, what are they fleeing from that this is a viable alternative?

They know that they can find jobs. They are willing to do anything. And they have, for the most part, relatives in the United States.

I am from Mexico, and there have been some places in Mexico [where migrants are] treated well. But in many places, especially at the southern border of Mexico — oh, the treatment is horrible. And they have to go through two, three, four different countries. Just picture that.

For people who are learned, educated, we are a first-world country, and not to be able to have that gaze to look at them with compassion and understanding, with listening? It's just unspeakable. It's just a disaster. A disaster.

Two women stand facing two colourful makeshift memorial crosses on the side of the road. One woman, the younger of the two, has her head thrown back and her arm around the other, who is elderly. Each cross is accompanied by a candle propped up in the soil.
Debra Ponce, left, and Angelita Olvera pray near the scene of the abandoned tractor-trailer. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman/The Associated Press)

You mentioned you've been seeing this for decades, but the pandemic and the policies around the pandemic, has exacerbated this situation. Can you tell me more about that for sure?

The policy of the United States was to send any refugee that was requesting [asylum] immediately back to Mexico. No matter if they were from Haiti. No matter if they are from Honduras, El Salvador, Ecuador, Guatemala. Some, they were coming from Africa. 

Which was a tremendous injustice because just to pile up all those requests without processing them, it's an unjust reality.

In the end … were you able to visit with any of those survivors in the hospital?

Most of them, they were intubated. Only ... two were not. And one was 16 years old. She was in a children's hospital. And I saw her earlier this morning and she was able to talk. [She] was the only one able to speak.

And what did she say to you?

I said, "What is your name?" 

She did tell me her name.… And then I said, "Are you from Guatemala?" ... And she said, "Yes."

"You're doing better," I said. "It's what the nurses are telling me. Trust them. Trust them," I said. "Everybody here wants to help you."

And then I said, "Have you talked to your family?" And she said, "No, because they took my phone."

I said, "No, it's just part of the process. Don't worry. But when you get your phone, please talk to your family because that will give them peace and hope, and it will do good to you too."

Was she travelling alone? Was she travelling with any family?

Those questions about what happened, I don't ask — purposely, because … I'm not investigating or anything. I just came to connect with them to assure them of our prayers and our love. And I will keep in touch.

An aerial view of tractor trailer parked on a gravel road, with a red tarp laid out behind it. Several people are standing around the vehicle. A trains speeds by on the tracks alongside the vehicle.
In this aerial view, members of law enforcement investigate the tractor-trailer, believed to have been used in a fatal human smuggling operation. (Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images)

Do we know what happens now to these survivors? And I understand the community is going to try and support them. What happens next?

What we want is tomorrow to celebrate at a memorial mass at the Cathedral in San Antonio, in which everyone is welcome, in the evening.

The law enforcement has to give us direction or room to do something directly for them. And until that happens, all we can do is to be in solidarity, to find ways to get ready.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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