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Death of migrants in Texas shows dangers of human smuggling

July 24, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
Dozens of people were found packed into a sweltering tractor trailer in San Antonio, Texas, on Sunday, an attempt at human smuggling that left at least 10 dead and nearly 20 others hospitalized. Survivors said there was no air conditioning and described taking turns to breath through a hole. John Yang learns more about this case and immigration politics from Jason Buch of San Antonio Express News.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now the latest on a human smuggling case in Texas that has left at least 10 people dead after they were packed into a sweltering tractor-trailer.

And again to John Yang.

JOHN YANG: The truck driver, James Bradley, was charged in federal court today with knowingly transporting people who are in the country illegally for money.

According to the criminal complaint, a Wal-Mart employee called police early Sunday to report the suspicious tractor-trailer in the parking lot after someone asked for water. Officers found dozens of people packed into the sweltering trailer.

In addition to the dead, nearly 20 others are still hospitalized. Bradley told police he was driving the tractor-trailer from Iowa to a new owner in Brownsville, Texas, and wasn’t aware of what or who he was hauling until he stopped at the Wal-Mart for a bathroom break.

Survivors said there was no air conditioning and described taking turns to breath through a hole in the trailer.

Jason Buch is covering the story and reports on border and immigration issues for The San Antonio Express-News.

Jason, thanks for joining us.

First, bring us up to date. What’s the latest today and what did we learn from the truck driver’s appearance in court?

JASON BUCH, The San Antonio Express-News: Well, there wasn’t a whole lot said in court this morning.

He’s going to be held until a bond hearing on Thursday. But the U.S. Attorney’s Office signed off on a complaint by immigration agents that detailed what they learned in their interviews with the driver and with the immigrants, and, as you described, this journey up from the border in an overheated container with a very limited ability to get air from one hole.

JOHN YANG: And talk about the charges he’s facing. They’re federal charges. What’s the maximum penalty?

JASON BUCH: So, most smuggling charges come with a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

But because people died in this case, he actually faces up to life in prison or the death penalty. We had another incident here about 15 years ago in which several people died, 19 people died after being abandoned in a trailer.

The death penalty was overturned in that case, and that driver got 34 years. So, it would be difficult for the U.S. Attorney’s Office to prove up a capital case here.

JOHN YANG: How widespread are these smuggling operations? What can you tell us about them?

JASON BUCH: I mean, people come across the border in South Texas every day.

The Border Patrol in Laredo, which is where these folks crossed, have reported in the last couple months an uptick in people using tractor-trailers to try to get through the Border Patrol checkpoint and reach the cities to the north.

It’s been a long time since we have had a fatal incident like this involving a tractor-trailer, but certainly there have been a number of incidents reported by Border Patrol recently of dozens of people packed into tractor-trailers.

JOHN YANG: And tell us how these operations work.

I mean, these people, some of the survivors said they crossed the river actually on a raft and then they were being taken farther north in this truck? How do they work in general?

JASON BUCH: Right.

So, what they described was being — paying a smuggler in Mexico to bring them across the border. They were then brought to most likely stash houses on the U.S. side. And then, when it was time to load the truck, it appears that people who were being smuggled by different groups were all brought to where this trailer was parked, loaded into the trailer, and then driven to Laredo.

And, in fact, they were given — each group was given a different color tape to determine who they should go with when they arrived in San Antonio. And some of the immigrants described to investigators that there were black SUVs waiting for them in the Wal-Mart parking lot when they pulled up.

JOHN YANG: And where they would be taken after that? Where would these SUVs take them?

JASON BUCH: Some people said that they were staying in San Antonio.

Others — another person interviewed by the immigration agents said that they were headed for Minnesota.

Usually, San Antonio is a pass-through because we’re on a major highway to the border. People are usually going on to major metropolitan areas or regions of the country that employ a lot of immigrant laborers, so, areas with large agriculture industries or construction booms.

JOHN YANG: And obviously, business — I’m sorry — border security, immigration issues are a big topic, with President Trump talking about the border wall. Has this incident gotten swept up in the politics of this issue?

JASON BUCH: Absolutely.

Our lieutenant governor was on Facebook yesterday blaming this on sanctuary cities. Our legislature recently passed a bill that would provide criminal penalties and fines for officials who ran what they call sanctuary cities.

So, the lieutenant governor was placing blame for this incident on cities and counties that don’t cooperate with federal immigration officials.

JOHN YANG: Well, it’s a horrible, horrible incident, reminds us of the people behind these issues.

Jason Buch, thanks so much for joining us.

JASON BUCH: Thank you.

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