About 100 people gathered in front of San Fernando Cathedral Sunday evening to mourn the nine dead and nearly 30 injured immigrants in a human smuggling enterprise that turned deadly when the victims were left in a tractor-trailer without ventilation or water parked at a Southside Walmart. It is still unknown how long it was parked there before authorities found it early Sunday morning.

RAICES, an immigrant advocacy group, organized the vigil.

“With a heavy heart I stand here mourning the loss of my immigrant brothers and sisters,” RAICES community organizer Barbie Hurtado told listeners gathered in Main Plaza.

A memorial service quickly turned political amid a rancorous statewide debate over Senate Bill 4, the so-called “sanctuary cities” bill championed by Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Dan Patrick that was signed into law and goes into effect Sept. 1.

The law directs municipal law enforcement to play a more active role in determining the citizenship of individuals who come under police scrutiny. Law enforcement leaders in San Antonio and across the state opposed the legislation, but cities face penalties if they fail to comply with the new law.

“Today’s tragedy is why I made passing Senate Bill 4 to ban sanctuary cities — which is now law — a top priority,” Patrick, a Republican, wrote on his Facebook page Sunday afternoon. “Sanctuary cities entice people to believe they can come to America and Texas and live outside the law. Sanctuary cities also enable human smugglers and cartels. Today, these people paid a terrible price and demonstrate why we need a secure border and legal immigration reform so we can control who enters our country. We continue to pray for the families and friends of the victims.”

In her remarks, Hurtado blamed the deaths and injuries suffered by the immigrants on “corrupt governments” and “invisible borders.” She said the incident was a preventable tragedy. “We cannot have this conversation without looking at the larger systemic issue.”

RAICES Community Organizer Barbie Hurtado speaks to the crowd at the vigil for migrant deaths at San Fernando Cathedral.
RAICES Community Organizer Barbie Hurtado speaks to the crowd at the vigil for migrant deaths at San Fernando Cathedral. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Officials with RAICES are targeting the San Antonio Police Department for involving Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the early stages of the response. Hurtado said other humanitarian options were not considered. Local nonprofits like RAICES, Catholic Charities, and the human smuggling counselors available through the Rape Crisis Center could have ensured that the victims were not further traumatized by contact with ICE officials, Hurtado told the Rivard Report. 

While Hurtado did not contest that SAPD’s rapid response saved the lives of most of the immigrants, she claimed their decision to involve ICE made them complicit in a larger systemic injustice.

Local police officers put victims’ needs first throughout the rapid response effort, SAPD spokesman Jesse Salame said.

“The care and welfare of the victims was our top priority,” Salame stated in an email to the Rivard Report. “SAPD officers administered first aid, helped rescue those that were still inside the trailer, and cleared the parking lot so that Airlife could quickly land and transport those with the most serious injuries.”

ICE, Hurtado said, has a poor track record for treatment of immigrant detainees. A press release was sent out by RAICES linking to the ACLU’s continuing record of deaths and injuries resulting from encounters with Customs and Border Patrol agents. 

RAICES Volunteer and Esperanza Center for Peace and Justice Member Jan Olsen comforts RAICES Community Organizer Barbie Hurtado at the vigil for migrant deaths at San Fernando Cathedral.
RAICES Volunteer and Esperanza Center for Peace and Justice Member Jan Olsen comforts (left) RAICES Community Organizer Barbie Hurtado at the vigil for migrant deaths at San Fernando Cathedral. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

 “Our nation is responding to a humanitarian crisis with criminalization of asylum seekers,” RAICES spokesperson Amy Fischer said.

San Antonio Police Chief William McManus has consistently spoken against SB 4, and last week Mayor Ron Nirenberg went to Austin to speak out against the bill, both leaders saying the bill would reduce cooperation with law enforcement in the Latino and immigrant community.

Notifying ICE was standard protocol, Salame said.

“[The Department of Homeland Security] is the lead investigative agency for all smuggling cases,” Salame said. “Now is not the time to point fingers and politicize the tragic loss of human life. We will continue to do our part to ensure all people in our city are protected, regardless of their citizenship status.”

Mia, 4, (bottom left) stands with her family the vigil for migrant deaths at San Fernando Cathedral.
Mia, 4, (bottom left) stands with her family the vigil for migrant deaths at San Fernando Cathedral. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Hurtado blamed the incident on Trump administration policies.

Elected leaders present spoke with greater restraint. U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro declined to endorse Hurtado’s comments.

“The first concern is people,” Castro said. He did acknowledge that people of many different political convictions believe the immigration system is broken. The desperation of the victims is “a symptom of a broken immigration system,” he added.

Ambassador and Mexican Consul General Reyna Torres Mendívil offered condolences to the families and friends of the victims.

There are no confirmed numbers of immigrants smuggled across U.S. borders by human smugglers, but most elected officials and immigration experts agree it is a problem of national importance.

In a statement released Sunday, Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller lamented the harrowing conditions immigrants continue to face, even as well-intentioned advocates pledge to intervene.

“When 19 people died in similar circumstances in a locked trailer in nearby Victoria in 2003 the nation was stunned, and people of goodwill vowed to work diligently to ensure that something such as this would never happen again,” Garcia-Siller said. “Unfortunately, law enforcement has reported an upsurge in these types of human smuggling and trafficking operations at the border in recent months, with increasingly desperate individuals seeking safety and a better life for their families placing their well-being and indeed their lives in the hands of reprehensible, callous smugglers and traffickers.”

Arlenne Serna, a first generation U.S. citizen and intern with MOVE San Antonio, an advocacy group aimed at mobilizing young people around immigration issues, remembered the day her father, who re-entered the country illegally after going back to Mexico to care for his mother, finally made it home.

“[Today’s incident] made me have flashbacks of the night my father came home,” Serna said. He was deported to Mexico in 2012, where he fell ill and died within months. “My family isn’t the same anymore,” she said. “These laws are not helping us. They are destroying us.”

A crowd gathers with pro-immigration reform signs at the vigil for migrant deaths at San Fernando Cathedral.
A crowd gathers with pro-immigration reform signs at the vigil for migrant deaths at San Fernando Cathedral. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Victoria De La Cruz, a volunteer with the Texas Organizing Project, spoke with passion about her own experience with immigrants and the dangers they encounter crossing into the U.S. She honored the children, “los angelitos” who will not experience “el sueño americano,” and called for unified support of “todos los inmigrantes de todos los paises.”

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) is emotional at the vigil for migrant deaths at San Fernando Cathedral.
Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) is emotional at the vigil for migrant deaths at San Fernando Cathedral. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), who immigrated to the U.S. as a 1-year-old, is living that American dream, she said, largely because her parents were in the position to wait the years it took to get a green card. Others she said, don’t have the “luxury of time.”

Desperation drives people to subject themselves to the danger of smugglers, she said.

“It’s such a blind hope, a blind faith in this country,” she said. “Today is the day to mourn, but tomorrow we have to wake up and do more. We can’t just mourn. We can’t just turn our backs on a ‘federal problem.’”

Maria Luisa Cesar attended the vigil to represent Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who is looking into how the city can further support immigrants who arrive in San Antonio, which advocacy groups are working to keep an open and safe destination.

“Today is just furthering that message that we are an inclusive city, but there is real danger out there for our immigrants,” said MOVE San Antonio Executive Director Drew Galloway.

The evening was a mix of fiery rhetoric and reflection. People gathered in a circle, lighted candles, and offered testimonials and prayers. Retired U.S. Air Force Chaplain Col. Fr. Joseph Wagner offered the first prayer.

“When I have a heavy heart, I turn to the Lord,” Wagner said, “I ask the Lord to be with me and with those who suffer.”

Col. Fr. Joseph Wagner says a prayer at the vigil for migrant deaths at San Fernando Cathedral.
Col. Fr. Joseph Wagner says a prayer at the vigil for migrant deaths at San Fernando Cathedral. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Wagner prayed against the “indignities that have taken place in our own city and our own country,” and prayed for those in a position to assist immigrants. “As Kingdom people, we stand for justice. We stand for what is right. We stand for immigrants.”

Jan Olsen, a member of Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and RAICES volunteer, reiterated Wagner’s remarks with a reading of a “Prayer for Refugees.”

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.