The Current·Q&A

Immigration reform needed to stop future migrant deaths, says professor

If future migrant deaths are to be prevented, the United States needs to implement comprehensive immigration reform by providing legal avenues to both reunite families and address labour shortages, said criminology professor Roger Enriquez.

Roger Enriquez says family reunification, creating labour opportunities for migrants should be a priority

The open back of a large truck with several emergency vehicles and personnel nearby.
Law enforcement officers work at the scene where people were found dead inside a trailer truck in San Antonio, Texas, on June 27. (Kaylee Greenlee Beal/Reuters)

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If future migrant deaths are to be prevented, the United States needs to implement comprehensive immigration reform by providing legal avenues to both reunite families and address labour shortages, said criminology professor Roger Enriquez.

Fifty-three people were found dead trapped in a sweltering tractor-trailer late last month in San Antonio, Texas. It was the deadliest human smuggling tragedy of its kind in the United States, according to The Associated Press. 

The suspected driver, Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, a Texas native, has since been charged in U.S. federal court with a single count of migrant smuggling resulting in death.

Officials are still working to identify the victims — a process made difficult due to a lack of documentation, as well as fake or stolen documents, and the inability to contact victims' family members. Those who died were from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, officials said.

Following the deaths, Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said state troopers would set up additional truck checkpoints on highways, but he did not say how many.

Abbott has been critical of President Joe Biden's immigration policies. In April, the governor gridlocked the Texas border for a week by requiring every truck entering the state to undergo additional inspections.

Enriquez, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Texas who studies immigration law, says says the deaths shouldn't come as a surprise and that tragedies like these aren't new.

He spoke with guest host Rosemary Barton on The Current. Here's part of that conversation.

What went through your mind, Roger, when you heard about this tractor-trailer with so many deaths inside? 

Honestly, because the heat had been sweltering in the month of June with several days above 100 [Fahrenheit], I hate to say that, unfortunately, I anticipated that something like this could happen. 

We know that there are many, many of these tractor-trailers that come in with human cargo and the folks who operate these are typically cartels with very little regard for human life. So the risk becomes all the greater for this trek when the temperatures are the way they are. 

Do you have a sense of what's happening to the few people who did survive right now? 

Typically what would happen is the survivors are really key to investigate what went wrong. The government can offer them what's called [non-immigrant] T visas or U visas in order to help cooperate with authorities [and] stay in the country to be able to provide information to law enforcement around what happened. 

Residents of San Antonio cry on Wednesday evening as they attended a vigil for the victims found in an abandoned truck on the outskirts of the city earlier in the week. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

What can you tell us about the networks or, as you said, the cartels behind these human smuggling operations? 

Truthfully, the success of [trade deals] like the USMCA — or NAFTA before it — has really created these massive channels for commerce in the region. 

The port of Laredo, [Texas], which is just south of us, 150 miles, which is where the truck came from, [has] $250 billion [US] in trade, 12,000 vehicles cross daily. So this creates an opportunity not just for legitimate businesses, obviously, but for cartels and anybody else who's looking to profit or get financial gain from using that pipeline for human smuggling, contraband, etc.

So we know that they're very highly organized folks, not just into Mexico but all the way down to Central America and all the way into the United States as well, to be able to move these persons into and through these otherwise legitimate channels of commerce, but obviously masking themselves as produce or any other goods that typically flow through there. 

It sounds like this is one of, sort of, the consequences of free trade — the abuse of it, as well. What are some of the ways that U.S. law enforcement is trying to stop the smugglers, or are they? 

The unintended consequences here abound, right? So the idea is to attempt to curb illegal immigration. The United States has spent billions of dollars in order to try to beef up security in the area. 

So the idea is you're spending billions on more personnel, what's typically referred to as non-intrusive inspection technology like X-rays, cameras, use of K-9 teams, horse patrols, air interdiction, marine interdiction. You name it, they've done it. 

And what that's done is made that trek all the more dangerous because you're going to attempt to really run the gauntlet, basically, to try to get into the United States. Folks have to take bigger risks and, obviously, deal with elements that really no one should have to deal with. 

Crosses and candles have been left at the spot where the tractor-trailer was discovered with migrants inside. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)

So what is the answer then if it's not adding on layers of enforcement? Is it prevention? Is it a broader immigration solution? What's the answer to avoiding this? 

I mean, the answer remains the same — and it's been the same for the last 20 some odd years — which is comprehensive immigration reform. Two of the goals of any immigration system is to have opportunities for labour and also family reunification. 

As the stories come out, there are pushes and pulls to immigration and we're learning more about some of the places where these folks were headed.

I mean, people are spending anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000 [US] for these trips. Obviously, they're receiving support from someone. And ultimately they were trying to be reunified with an aunt or an uncle or who knows who, but somebody already in the United States. 

So we have a lack of comprehensive immigration reform in this country because it's not dealing with two of the most basic needs of immigration, which is family reunification and creating labour. 

And it doesn't seem as though Republicans or Democrats are willing to take that on. The governor of Texas after this incident, not surprisingly perhaps, blamed President Biden and his border policy for the deaths. What do you make of that? 

If you want to talk about the militarization of the border, the state of Texas spent $10 billion [US] of its own money on top of what the federal government had already spent, thereby creating a much more dangerous situation for folks who are trying to come into this country. 

Now, immigration law has historically been viewed as the purview of the federal government. But because immigration is such a hot-button issue, we're coming into an election for the governor of the state of Texas and, of course, the stakes have been raised and folks are obviously attempting to garner some political gain from that. 

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.
Members of law enforcement investigate a tractor trailer in San Antonio, Texas. (Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images)

Four people have been arrested and charged in connection with this particular tragedy. How often does that happen, Roger? 

I looked at the data a while back, and about 4,000 folks are convicted of smuggling aliens every year, and they typically get sentences of between 16 and 20 months. So that's not very many folks, and it's not a very long sentence. 

Obviously, this particular result is very unique. It's a mass casualty event. Most of the time where folks get caught, they may get caught at a checkpoint or something along those lines, and you don't have the loss of human life. 

Are you bracing for more of these kinds of tragedies as the summer goes on? You didn't sound, frankly, surprised that it had happened in this instance. 

No, I wasn't surprised, and unfortunately, we are becoming altogether too complacent. As was mentioned earlier, this is a problem that's been going on. There have been years in the Arizona desert where migrants would succumb to the heat as they tried to cross there. 

In our own state as well, where migrants try to cross into more isolated areas, they've died out in the Texas desert. This has been going on for 20, 25 years, so unfortunately we've become somewhat desensitized to it and that's unfortunate. 

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Howard Goldenthal and Meli Gumus. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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