The deaths of ten people locked in the back of a tractor-trailer after being illegally shuttled into the U.S. from Mexico sheds light on a complex problem that legislators and law enforcement have struggled to contain and the high cost that human smuggling can carry.
On Monday, federal prosecutors charged the driver of the truck, James Matthew Bradley Jr., with one count of unlawfully transporting illegal aliens resulting in death, an offense that could be punishable by life in prison or death.
San Antonio police were called to a Walmart parking lot shortly after midnight on Sunday morning, where they found several people who turned out to be undocumented immigrants standing and lying in the rear of the truck Bradley had been driving, a few of them already dead.
A criminal complaint filed Monday revealed harrowing new details about their journey.
The document cites interviews with several of the undocumented migrants about their experience. They appear to have come from groups that crossed the Rio Grande River near Laredo at different times and were held at different “stash houses” before being loaded into the trailer.
“The smugglers closed the door and the interior of the trailer was pitch black and it was already hot inside,” the complaint states. “He stated they were not provided with any water or food. People inside were making noise to get someone’s attention but nobody ever came.”
Migrants estimated there were between 70 and 200 people in the trailer during transport, some of whom passed out from the heat.
“People had a hole in the trailer wall to provide some ventilation and they started taking turns breathing from the hole,” the complaint states.
Bradley claimed he did not know they were back there and he only heard them inside when he got out behind the Walmart to urinate, according to the document. When he opened the door, he said, “he was run over by ‘Spanish’ people.”
“Bradley said he then noticed bodies just lying on the floor like meat,” the complaint states.
The migrants who were found by police said six SUVs had pulled up after the doors were opened and whisked away dozens of the people who had been in the trailer. When authorities arrived, they found eight dead and 30-40 others who received medical treatment. Two more have since died.
The grim description of 200 people crowded into a trailer after a treacherous excursion across deserts and rivers, fumbling in the darkness for air within the confines of what has essentially become an 18-wheel oven raises a question of whether putting oneself through this pain is worth it. Clearly, for the people paying smugglers thousands of dollars for the chance, it is.
“We take the risks that we’re willing to take based on our experience,” said Melinda I. Torres, director of the Human Trafficking Research Portfolio at University of Texas at Austin. “Others don’t have the opportunities that we do.”
Although they are sometimes discussed interchangeably, there are several significant distinctions between human smuggling and human trafficking. Smuggling specifically refers to the illegal transportation of people into the country deliberately evading immigration laws. Trafficking centers on exploitation, typically for either sex or labor, and it involves force, fraud, or coercion.
“Human smuggling is a crime against a border,” Torres said. “Human trafficking is a crime against a person.”
The difference underscores one of the challenges of preventing human smuggling. Some people being transported are or become trafficking victims, but others voluntarily make the journey despite the dangers and walk away safely once they reach their destination.
“It’s pretty straightforward. When you have limited choices and you need to feed your family or improve your life, this is the best choice out of really bad choices,” said Bridgette Carr, founding director of the University of Michigan Law School’s Human Trafficking Clinic.
Migrants who hand their savings over to smugglers weigh the opportunities they believe their families will have if they survive against the possibility that they will die trying.
“They often know what the potential bad outcome is, but just like anyone who makes a risky choice, they hope they’ll be the one to make it across,” Carr said.
Because it is impossible to determine how many smugglers and traffickers successfully bring people into the country, statistics on exactly how many people are willing to take those risks are difficult to come by.
“We always have trouble counting the prevalence of illegal things,” said John Richmond, co-founding director of the Human Trafficking Institute, “because obviously no one is self-identifying.”
According to Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, author of the upcoming book “Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium,” surveys indicate that up to 90 percent of undocumented immigrants crossing the border now rely on smugglers along the way, and they pay an average of $10,000 for the service. As the difficulty of making it across the border increases, so does the need for a smuggler and the price.
“The utility of a smuggler does decrease the likelihood of detection from border security,” she said.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission found that 2,241 offenders were convicted of alien smuggling in fiscal year 2014, slightly more than in the previous two years. That accounted for 11.2 percent of all immigration offenders. In 1.2 percent of the smuggling cases, at least one migrant died.
Nearly 90 percent of the offenders were sentenced to prison, with the average sentence being 18 months. Most of the offenders were male U.S. citizens and 60 percent had little or no prior criminal history. The average age at sentencing was 33.
Stepping up investigation and punishment for smuggling could change the cost-benefit analysis for those who engage in it.
“Where smugglers operate with impunity, they might take more risks,” Richmond said. As with other crimes, if they fear enforcement, they may be less willing to engage in it.
Aggressive prosecution of smugglers is one element of deterring these tragedies, but there are other areas where experts say more must be done. Opinions diverge, though, on whether the Trump administration is taking immigration policy in the right direction.
Some say the country’s permissive attitude toward undocumented immigrants encourages them to risk their lives to get here.
“Human trafficking of illegal aliens into the U.S. is a direct result of the incentives in place that entice illegal immigrants to take the chance in the first place,” said Cassie Williams, press secretary for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group seeking restrictions on legal and illegal immigration. “The most notorious are the sanctuary cities, which offer them shelter from immigration laws once they arrive, along with the widespread availability of American jobs.”
Williams argued that enacting President Trump’s immigration agenda would reduce the desire to enter the country illegally.
“That’s why we need to continue to crack down on illegal sanctuary cities and pass mandatory, universal E-Verify, the electronically based system that prevents illegal immigrants from using fake IDs to get U.S. jobs,” she said. “These two steps, along with finishing President Trump’s border wall, will go a long way in preventing future tragedies like this one from every happening again.”
Others say this is not necessarily a border security or enforcement issue. It is impossible to prevent all illegal border crossings, and making it more onerous to get across could drive desperate families to pay smugglers more and take bigger risks.
“The risks are getting larger because the enforcement is getting stronger…,” Torres said. “Our border policies are founded on the idea of protecting the border, not protecting people. This is a consequence of that.”
According to Mehlman-Orozco, this incident highlights the need for a “robust debate” about immigration policy. The root causes of migration are typically economic, and building a wall is not going to eliminate that motivation.
“If people are paying that much money, if they are risking their lives, there obviously has to be a very strong push factor,” she said.
Fixing the legal immigration system and making the process fairer could help. In many countries, the procedures for obtaining approval to emigrate to the U.S. are rife with corruption and red tape.
“There is not a proverbial line in some countries for people to wait on to come to the United States,” Mehlman-Orozco said.
Making it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to find jobs in the U.S. by targeting those who would hire them might also discourage people from making the trek.
“People aren’t coming here if there aren’t economic opportunities,” Carr said. “What this means is, there are employers who are employing them.”
Smugglers can face stiff sentences if caught and migrants can be deported, but employers are often let off the hook. If lawmakers do want to pursue new legislation on the issue, that may be the more effective approach.
“If we really want to use the law and penalties to prevent people from crossing, they’re not going to cross if there’s not a job,” Carr said.
Since the economies of the U.S. and Mexico have become increasingly intertwined, she added that making it easier to come and go across the border for work could reduce the need to sneak in illegally.
“We often need these workers to support the economy that we have, so we need to change our immigration policy,” she said.