Southside residents María García and Debbie Flores were perfect strangers who met at the site of a tragedy.
The day after 10 immigrants died inside a sweltering tractor-trailer that ended up in a Walmart parking lot, the two women came together at a makeshift memorial of crosses, teddy bears, and bottles of water and decided to mark the deaths another way, by organizing a rosary for nine days.
Thursday night was the final rosary, drawing more than 50 people back to the spot where truck driver James Matthew Bradley Jr. was arrested after he took a bathroom break and police found a scene of death and desperation. A new report from the non-partisan National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) highlights the increasing danger of making the journey across the border.
Smugglers and middlemen arranged for the group of immigrants, the majority from Mexico and a few others from Guatemala, to travel north from the Mexican border in the trailer without a functioning air-conditioning unit. Thirty people who survived the journey were hospitalized, and 20 individuals discharged from the hospital so far are in federal custody as material witnesses.
“It’s a tragedy that another human being could do something like this for money,” Deacon Jesse Alcala of Saint James the Apostle Catholic Church told those gathered at the vigil. “We ask for peace for their families.”
7,000 Deaths and Counting
The events of Sunday, July 23, are no anomaly. Hundreds of immigrants are caught traveling across the border inside trailers every year and many more make the journey undetected.
Over the past 20 years, more than 7,000 men, women, and children have died along the Southwest border, according to the NFAP report issued this month, and deaths have continued to climb even as apprehensions and attempts to cross illegally have decreased.
Between 1998 and 2017, there have been 7,127 deaths in Southwest border areas, according to the U.S. Border Patrol, and immigrant deaths surged 80% between 1999 and 2012, while apprehensions – which serve as a measure of illegal entry – declined by 77%. This suggests that an immigrant hoping to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally today is more likely to die in the attempt than 18 years ago.
“When you are trying to cross here, it’s almost as if this is a last resort,” District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña said, reacting to the new report. “Before there were other ways to get across, from what I’ve been told by people who’ve come prior to 1990. Now it seems like the only option is to go through a person who is smuggling you across so that is a dangerous business for anybody to sign on to.”
As of July 24, 212 people have died along the border during the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, the report said, and there have been 7.8 immigrant deaths per 10,000 apprehensions. It concludes that without legal avenues for immigrants to enter the U.S. for coveted jobs, deaths likely will continue to rise.
“The July 2017 deaths of 10 people suffocated while smuggled inside a tractor trailer truck discovered in San Antonio should spark debate about the need for legal visas for lower-skilled workers,” the report said. “If the past is any guide, it will not.”
Thomas Homan, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s acting director, decried the criminal acts that led to the grim discovery at the Southside Walmart, an incident that was the deadliest truck-smuggling operation in the U.S. in more than 10 years.
Homan investigated a similar case in Houston in 2003, when 73 unauthorized immigrants were packed inside a tractor-trailer with a broken air-conditioning system. When the driver finally stopped, 19 lifeless bodies were found inside – one a 5-year-old child named Marco Antonio.
“Smugglers will take advantage of more and more individuals who want to come, and if that’s the only pipeline and channel, then I think those numbers speak truth to the anecdotes of how people are getting here,” Saldaña said.
Attendees at the vigil Thursday lit candles and recited the Padre Nuestro, the Lord’s Prayer, over and over in memory of the victims who died of asphyxiation, dehydration, and heat exposure. The gravity of the situation hit home for many who prayed, reminding them of their own perilous journeys in search of the American Dream.
“We came to the rosary because most of us are immigrants and we lived it – we identify in this way,” Reynaldo Ramos, an undocumented immigrant who first made the journey north when he was 15 years old, told the Rivard Report in Spanish. “What they went through on their journey is the same situation, maybe a little different, but we also had to walk deserts, suffer hunger and thirst. The danger is always there.”
Ramos, 32, who was born and raised in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, said that he took the same route as the immigrants from the tractor-trailer with a large group led by a guide in his community. Ramos remembers the hot sun on his back and the dry feeling in his throat.
“After days at the border, we ran out of food,” Ramos said. “We jumped, walked, and latched unto a train, then we circled a checkpoint in San Antonio and walked five more hours without water. In the end, we found water near some cows and survived.”
Ramos said he has gone back and forth between Mexico and the United States four times, facing different dangers each time. But he hasn’t returned to Mexico in nine years, largely because the journey has become increasingly dangerous. Drug cartels ask immigrants for money each step of the way and human smugglers push to make profits, he said.
“Back then there was more camaraderie and we helped ourselves within our community. We didn’t need coyotes or smugglers,” Ramos said. “But things have changed. Before, you could also take trains, but now there are more checkpoints and everything is more complicated.”
A visitor to one of the rosaries organized by García and Flores was Luisa Cano Vásquez, the mother of two of the men inside the tractor-trailer.
Her 26-year-old son, Mariano López Cano, was from the Mexican state of Veracruz and left behind a wife, a 4-year-old, and an 8-day old baby, García said. Making the equivalent of $7 a day in Mexico, he went north in search of better-paying work. His brother, Humberto López Cano, survived the journey but remains hospitalized.
Cano took her son’s body back to Veracruz to bury him, García said, receiving monetary donations from community members who attended Saturday’s vigil.
After Thursday’s rosary concluded, local resident Mara Rodríguez led the assembled group in singing a song she had composed, Fatal Destino, inspired by the tragic events.
“They were our brothers, those who passed away here looking for a better life,” Rodríguez sang in Spanish. “They died here, leaving their families in pain. I ask God to receive them up in el cielo. In heaven, there are no borders.”
When she was in her 20s, Rodríguez also made the journey as an undocumented immigrant. Thanks to her U.S.-born daughter, she later became an American citizen.
“I’ve seen so many things in my lifetime,” she said. “I used to live near some tracks near Kelly Air Force Base, and I probably picked up around 14 or 15 immigrants and gave them water, food, and clothes.”
Rodríguez said she’s seen pregnant women and young children, many thirsting for water, dropped off in San Antonio, likely by smugglers. One on occasion, she saw the body of a young man she believed was from Mexico who was cut in half by a train.
“I would tell the parents of these children not to send for their kids with these smugglers like the one from the tractor-trailer incident,” Rodríguez said, “because right now it’s too difficult to cross, and all you will get are bodies.”
For Ramos, finding work was always his motivation for crossing the border, and that hasn’t changed for those risking the journey.
“When you don’t have anything and you see others returning from the North who can now live in dignity, well, you also want to leave to make something of yourself,” he said. “You don’t think twice and just go.”
In 1954, during the bracero program – Mexican laborers who were admitted legally into the U.S. for seasonal agricultural work – illegal entry as measured by apprehensions at the border fell 95% percent between 1953 and 1959, the NFAP report said.
“If Congress adopted reforms to allow the legal entry of foreign-born workers in sufficient numbers, then the tragedy of immigrant deaths at the border would largely disappear and illegal entry to the United States would be significantly reduced,” according to the report.
Saldaña said that the next step needs to come not from City Halls or police departments but from Congress.
“Congress [needs to] build an entryway to the country that is predictable, safe, and that is meeting the needs of our country,” he said, “but not undermining the respect and dignity that we need to have for immigrants coming and looking for a better life.”