How U.S. immigration policy is pushing migrants to take more dangerous routes


The U.S. and Mexican governments are investigating the deadliest human smuggling case in modern U.S. history. At least 51 people died after they were trapped in a sweltering tractor-trailer abandoned on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director of the American Immigration Council, joins Stephanie Sy to discuss the context in which these migrant deaths occurred.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The governments of both the U.S. and Mexico are investigating the deadliest human smuggling case in modern U.S. history.

    At least 51 people died after they were trapped in a sweltering tractor-trailer abandoned on the outskirts of San Antonio. Authorities are still working to identify the victims.

    Stephanie Sy has more.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It was a worker in the area who heard the cries for help and found the tractor trailer, doors partially open and, inside, people piled on top of each other. Bodies were also found strewn along the road near the scene.

    More than a dozen other victims, including several children, were taken to the hospital.

  • Charles Hood, Fire Chief, San Antonio Fire Department:

    The patients that we saw were hot to the touch. They were suffering from heatstroke, heat exhaustion, no signs of water in the vehicle. It was a refrigerated tractor trailer, but there was no visible working A.C. unit on that rig.

    The heat index was more than 100 degrees in San Antonio on Monday afternoon. Authorities believe human traffickers were transporting the migrants. Among the victims were 22 citizens of Mexico, seven from Guatemala and two from Honduras.

    The president of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, commented on the tragedies.

  • Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Mexican President (through translator):

    These unfortunate events have to do with the situation of poverty and desperation of our Central American and Mexican brothers and sisters. It happens because there's also human trafficking and lack of controls at the border between Mexico and the United States and inside the United States.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Recent months have seen a record high number of attempted crossings from Mexico. In May alone, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents encountered more than 230,000 migrants making multiple border crossing attempts, even as a COVID public health order remains in place essentially banning migrants.

    The Biden administration has attempted to lift the Title 42 restrictions, but a federal judge blocked its repeal. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg called for compassion.

    Ron Nirenberg, Mayor of San Antonio, Texas: So, the plight of migrants seeking refuge is always a humanitarian crisis. But, tonight, we are dealing with a horrific human tragedy.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Customs enforcement has detained three people believe to be part of the smuggling conspiracy.

    For more in the context in which these migrant deaths occur, let's turn to Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director of the American Immigration Council.

    Aaron, thank you for joining the "NewsHour."

    Anyone who has been in the Southwest in the summer knows the heat can be deadly. And being inside in an un-air conditioned tractor trailer truck, it's just hard to imagine how high the temperatures got in there. Why would anyone take that risk, much less with children?

  • Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, American Immigration Council:

    It's truly a horrific outcome.

    And, unfortunately, the reality is that many migrants are taking this risk because they feel that there is no other way for them to get into the United States. Even the children, many of whom are trying to join family members in the United States, find that they really have no other options in order to come to this country.

    And so smugglers convince them to take routes that are inherently dangerous.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And this has happened before. We see it again this year. Apparently, 290 migrants have already died trying to cross the Southern border just in the first six months of this year, Aaron.

    And, as we just reported, officials are reporting a record number of attempted crossings at the Southern border since May. So, the main Trump era policies that were meant to deter migration during the pandemic, they're still in place, despite the Biden administration trying to get rid of them.

    The conditions are pretty much the same. How do those policies contribute to people continuing to try to cross this way?

  • Aaron Reichlin-Melnick:

    Well, really what we have seen is that Title 42, the Trump era pandemic health restriction, is still in place.

    And for individuals who are from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, nearly all of those migrants, especially those who are single adults, who are caught crossing the border are rapidly expelled back to Mexico. And that leads people to attempt to cross over and over and over again, trying to get through without being detected.

    Unfortunately, every time a person crosses the border like that, they're rolling a die and they're taking a chance that tragedy might occur. And, unfortunately, what we saw yesterday is one of the worst tragedies of its kind.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And a federal judge, of course, has blocked the Biden administration's ability to repeal Title 42 for now.

    But you also have Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who is, of course, up for reelection in November and a Republican. He's blaming President Biden, saying the deaths are a result of open border policies and a refusal to enforce the law.

    Of course, you have Democrats on the other side saying it's because of Trump's closed border policies.

    Aaron, how do we make sense of all of this.

  • Aaron Reichlin-Melnick:

    No person gets in a crowded truck and puts their life at risk if the border is open.

    The reality is, is that, for the migrants who are in that truck, there was no way for them to come into the United States legally, even if they were attempting to seek asylum. Since March of 2020, the ports of entry have been shut to asylum seekers. And for migrants from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries, there really is no way right now to access the asylum process or indeed to migrate legally.

    The reality is, the vast majority of people who come to our border and seek a better life have no legal ways to enter. And over the last 30 years, we have made the border harder and harder to cross in the safe locations, which has driven people into more and more dangerous routes; 2021 was the deadliest year on record at the border.

  • Stephanie Sy:


  • Aaron Reichlin-Melnick:

    And 2022 is going to be even worse.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And so you have people like Abbott's gubernatorial opponent, former Congressman Beto O'Rourke, saying that there should be more avenues open for legal migration.

    Aaron, given the scope of this tragedy, more than 50 people dead, do you see this coming up again for debate in Washington, more pathways for asylum, more pathways for legal immigration? Do you see the Biden administration prioritizing that more?

  • Aaron Reichlin-Melnick:

    The Biden administration has said that it wants to expand pathways for legal migration and to address the root causes that are the reasons why people are leaving their homes in the first place.

    But we're in a congressional impasse right now, even though the American public by a fairly large majority supports increased access to migration. Unfortunately, all of this is caught up in the politics right now. And you have one party that has become very anti-immigration.

    And as we saw with former President Trump, even legal immigration was under attack. But when you cut off all avenues for legal migration, you are forcing people into more and more dangerous routes, and the chances of a tragedy occurring go up.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Aaron Reichlin-Melnick with the American Immigration Council, thank you for joining the "NewsHour."

  • Aaron Reichlin-Melnick:

    Thank you for having me.

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How U.S. immigration policy is pushing migrants to take more dangerous routes first appeared on the PBS NewsHour website.

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