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The deaths of migrants in San Antonio has put a spotlight on the immigration issue


Three men are in custody in connection with the deaths of more than 50 migrants who were abandoned in a tractor-trailer in San Antonio Monday. It's reignited a partisan debate on immigration in this country. But as NPR's John Burnett reports, the dangerous transport of people into the U.S. has gone on under Democrats and Republicans.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Texas Governor Greg Abbott, an extreme right Republican, cast the first stone. Criticizing federal border security is a cudgel in his reelection campaign. Without a word about the dozens of human beings who baked in the truck, Abbott tweeted, these deaths are on Biden as a result of his deadly open border policies. There was swift reaction from Bexar County Commissioner Rebeca Clay-Flores. She said at a press conference the horrific deaths belie his words about an open border.


REBECA CLAY-FLORES: If there was such a policy as open borders, we wouldn't have had over 50 human lives trying to enter this country the way they did. We wouldn't be mourning the deaths of so many people who were simply seeking a better life.

BURNETT: It's a fact that cold-blooded human smugglers have for years used tractor-trailers to transport migrants heading north. There have been many tragedies. Last December, a big rig with as many as 200 migrants in the back crashes into a bridge in southern Mexico - 55 dead. 2017 - police discover a tractor-trailer parked at a Walmart in San Antonio - 10 migrants dead. 2003 - 19 people perish inside of a truck trailer near Victoria, Texas. Temperatures inside reached 170 degrees.

Tom Homan, who spent 34 years in immigration enforcement, was inside that trailer next to the body of a young boy.

TOM HOMAN: I actually at one point knelt down beside the child and put my hand down and said a prayer because all I can think about was what his last hour was like. What a tragic way to die.

BURNETT: Homan, who was acting head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under Trump, harshly criticizes Biden for deconstructing Trump's border programs. Trump's policies did reduce unlawful migrant crossings to a 35-year low, but they were widely condemned as being unfair and cruel. This year, the southern border has had a record number of illegal crossings. There were 220,000 apprehensions in May - an all-time high - though some were repeat crossers. Says Homan...

HOMAN: A secure border saves lives. When less people come across, less people are going to die.

BURNETT: Customs and Border Protection recorded 557 immigrant deaths last year - vehicle fatalities, dehydration in the desert and drownings in the Rio Grande. That's more than twice as many as 2020. Rescues of migrants have also doubled. Yet immigrant advocates have a different take on the alarming rise in migrant deaths. They say that inflexible immigration rules have led more people to sneak into the United States through perilous methods.

Natalia Trotter, an immigration lawyer with the San Antonio pro-immigrant group RAICES, singles out Title 42. It's a Trump-era public health rule that a federal judge has extended. It allows border agents to expel asylum seekers over COVID concerns.

NATALIA TROTTER: Title 42 has been the main program that has forced people back to Mexico and put them in extremely dangerous situations, which then leads to these desperate acts that places their lives at risk.

BURNETT: Longtime border observers know that migrant deaths go up and down, but they never stop. There are tragedies under Republican and Democratic administrations alike. Doris Meissner is former immigration commissioner, now with the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

DORIS MEISSNER: And unless we start to do some things differently as a country, which really depends on our Congress, where our immigration policies are concerned so that they are more realistic, these kinds of events will happen again.

BURNETT: Meissner wishes the appalling deaths of dozens of migrants in San Antonio this week would lead Congress to tackle immigration policy in the way that 21 murders in Uvalde led to debate and legislation on gun violence. But she's not optimistic. John Burnett, NPR News, San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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