A city worker at the scene on a remote back street in southwest San Antonio was alerted to the situation by a call for help just before 6 p.m. Monday, police chief William McManus said. Officers arrived and found a body on the ground outside the trailer and a partially open gate to the trailer, he said.
Hours later, body bags lay on the ground near the trailer as a somber symbol of the tragedy. There were still bodies inside.
Of the 16 who were hospitalized with heat-related illnesses, 12 were adults and four were children, Fire Chief Charles Hood said. Patients were hot to the touch and dehydrated, and no water was found in the trailer, he said.
“They suffered from heat stroke and exhaustion,” Hood said. “It was a refrigerated semi-truck, but there was no visible working air conditioning on that scaffold.”
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the 46 who died had “families who were probably trying to find a better life.”
“This is nothing short of a terrible human tragedy,” Nirenberg said.
Those in the trailer were part of an alleged attempt to smuggle migrants into the United States, and the investigation was being led by US Homeland Security Investigations, McManus said.
Three people have been taken into custody, but it’s unclear if they are genuinely linked to human trafficking, McManus said.
Big rigs became a popular smuggling method in the early 1990s when US border enforcement surged in San Diego and El Paso, Texas, which were then the busiest corridors for illegal border crossings.
Before that, people paid small fees to mom and pop operators to get them across a largely unguarded border. When crossing became exponentially more difficult after the 2001 terrorist attacks in the US, migrants were guided through more dangerous terrain and paid thousands of dollars more.
Heat is a serious hazard, especially when vehicle temperatures can rise sharply. The weather in the San Antonio area on Monday was mostly cloudy, but temperatures approached 100 degrees.
Some proponents drew a connection to the Biden administration’s border policy. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy director at the American Immigration Council, wrote that he had feared such a tragedy for months.
“With the border for migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador as tight as it is today, people have been pushed down increasingly dangerous routes. Truck smuggling is a way up,” he wrote on Twitter.
Stephen Miller, a chief architect of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, said “people smugglers and human traffickers are evil and evil” and that the administration’s approach to border security rewards their actions.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican running for re-election, was blunt in a tweet about the Democratic president: “These deaths are at the expense of Biden. They are the result of his deadly open borders policy.”
Migrants – mainly from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – have been deported more than 2 million times under a pandemic-era rule in force since March 2020, denying them the ability to apply for asylum but encouraging repeat applications since there are no legal consequences for getting caught. People from other countries, particularly Cuba, Nicaragua, and Colombia, are less likely to be subject to Title 42 authority due to higher travel costs, strained diplomatic relations, and other considerations.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 557 deaths at the Southwest border in the 12 months ended Sept. 30, more than double the previous year’s 247 deaths and the highest since records began in 1998. Most are in the related to heat exposure.
CBP hasn’t released death tolls for this year, but said the Border Patrol conducted 14,278 “search and rescue missions” in a seven-month period through May, surpassing the 12,833 missions conducted in the previous 12 months and 5,071 last year.