‘Stacks of Bodies’:A Truck of Despair and Death

Law enforcement officers work at the scene where people were found dead inside a trailer truck in San Antonio, Texas, US, June 27, 2022. [Photo/Agencies]

Semi-trailer trucks, an ever-present icon on the United States' highways, haul literally everything from cement and steel to vegetables and cattle. Yet unlike passenger cars, seldom are semitrailers used to transport people, unless there is something fishy going on. On June 27, an 18-wheeler was abandoned on a remote back road in southwest San Antonio, Texas, in 38?C heat.

Packed into the truck's stifling container were sixty-seven undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Among them fifty-three died from heatstroke and dehydration as there was no trace of water, food or air conditioning in that big rig. This is the deadliest smuggling episode ever at the US-Mexico border region.

San Antonio has long been one of the most heavily trafficked borders for immigrants. In 2003, nineteen people were found dead after suffocating in an airless trailer southeast of the city. Another ten lost their lives in 2017 after being trapped inside a sweltering truck parked at a Walmart in the city.

There are many more tragedies like these, some of which have taken place even before the poor souls reach the Melting Pot. In a statement released one day later, President Biden blamed the tragic loss of life in San Antonio on smugglers or human traffickers. True.

Smugglers have been exploiting immigrants' needs and corruption in the system to generate vast profits without any regard for the lives they endanger. The sixty-seven immigrants were packed into the truck, sprinkled with steak seasoning to cover up the smell of people and then abandoned en route by callous smugglers when the vehicle had a mechanical problem. In fact, this business is so lucrative that even service members want a piece of the pie.

Two Marines were apprehended in 2019 for trying to smuggle three immigrants into the country. Earlier this year, two Army soldiers stationed in Texas were confirmed to be part of a human smuggling operation involving more military members. "Several active-duty US troops have been charged or convicted in recent years of helping immigrants cross the border in exchange for money," said The Washington Post. But it would be unfair to blame these deaths merely on the symptoms of an illness.

Despite knowing that a journey like this one is typically dangerous and sometimes fatal, many Mexicans and Central Americans ventured anyway, in the hope of securing better living conditions in the US Unfortunately, their love for the "Land of Opportunity" is an unrequited one as what awaits them is a less than just and humane immigration system flawed by racism, discrimination and deterrence. From the very beginning, racial requirements have been used as a way to welcome white people and exclude others.

The 1790 Naturalization Act limited naturalization to only "free White person(s) ... of good character". From the era of Chinese Exclusion (1882-1943) when Chinese people were barred from entering the country to modern treatment of Latin American immigrants, race has proved to be an important factor in gaining access to the US A case in point is the Ukrainians who can fly into the US to seek refuge, in sharp contrast to the non-white immigrants on the land border being banned from doing the same thing.

One may argue that the door is swung open to Ukrainians because the US is committed to its role as a beacon to those who live in desperation and have to flee a crisis. But there were 803 Ukrainian refugees admitted to the US in the year ending in September 2021, when the Ukraine crisis did not even occur.

803, not much as it may seem, is more than double the figure for the seven Latin American/Caribbean countries of Cuba, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, Honduras and Venezuela combined, according to the US State Department's Refugee Admissions Report. Scant attention has been paid to the human rights of immigrants at the southern border and the reasons why they would risk such a perilous journey north.

For high-ups in US politics, immigrants, often described by such terms as "illegal", "bogus" or "criminal", fall into a different category of people seen as sub-human, and immigration is just a statistic or national security issue to be handled by law enforcement. Sixteen years ago, The Secure Fence Act of 2006 was passed with bipartisan support, giving the go-ahead for the construction of an 850-mile fence along the US-Mexico border. Since then, billions of dollars in taxpayer money have been spent on enforcement-only policies.

Statistics from the Migration Policy Institute, a US think tank, show that appropriations for immigration enforcement reached £25.1 billion by 2020, a nearly sixfold increase in relation to FY 2000. Many of the San Antonio truck victims could have gone to a land port of entry and applied to legally enter the US But that has been rendered impossible as Title 42, a public health code implemented in March 2020, allows border officials to promptly expel immigrants and indefinitely return them to their most recent transit country, under cover of COVID-19 restrictions. More than 1.87 million expulsions had been carried out by the Border Control by the end of April 2022, according to the American Immigration Council.

Multiple methods have been tried by successive governments across the political spectrum to push against the rights of immigrants of color and slam the door in their face. Alas, instead of managing immigration from a humanitarian and non-racist perspective, the "Nation of Immigrants" has kept up with the attempt to enforce and deter its way out of a border crisis. If this continues, structural problems that have led to the unprecedented levels of people on the move, up and down the Americas, will remain unsolved, and the list of tragic events will only lengthen.

Despite the San Antonio tragedy, a new caravan of immigrants has already formed in southern Mexico. This is understandable. After all, it is only human nature to try to make the most of the time on this planet to earn a better living for themselves and their families.

In the eyes of many, the US stands as a beacon of hope for freedom, democracy and prosperity. Allured by the "American Dream", the people who perished inside that big rig were following that beacon, and it cost them their lives. Yi Xin is a Beijing-based observer.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.

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