Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway, I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, thanks for being with us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: On Monday as temperatures in San Antonio, Texas reached 101 degrees, an 18-wheeler tractor-trailer truck carrying dozens of people was found abandoned near I-35 on a desolate road near railroad tracks. The truck did not have functioning air conditioning which means the people trapped inside were subjected to deadly heat. Responders discovered a grim scene, dozens of people dead, and those who were still alive had no water and were reportedly, "hot to the touch." San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg spoke about the tragedy in the immediate aftermath at a press conference on Monday night.
Ron Nirenberg: It's tragic. There are, that we know of, 46 individuals who are no longer with us, who had families, who were likely trying to find a better life. This is nothing short of a horrific human tragedy.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As of Wednesday morning, the death toll stands at at least 51 people, with several survivors still in hospitals fighting for their lives. Nierenberg told CNN on Tuesday that those responsible would be held accountable.
Ron Nirenberg: The people that are responsible for subjecting other people to these conditions should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. We do have three persons of interest who are in custody. You can rest assured that we will cooperate any way necessary to bring justice to those individuals.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Three people were taken into custody on Monday, and on Tuesday, two were charged with illegal weapons possession. This, unfortunately, is not the first time a tragedy like this has taken place in San Antonio. In July of 2017, 10 migrants died in the back of a hot truck which was found parked behind a Walmart in San Antonio. At the time officials pointed to human smugglers as the ones to blame. I'm joined now by Jason De León, professor of anthropology at UCLA, and director of the Undocumented Migration Project. Jason, thanks so much for being here.
Jason De León: Thank you for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, you're an anthropologist, is that right?
Jason De León: That's correct.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You've been studying clandestine border crossings? I'm just trying to understand, for you, as someone who studies this, what your gut-level reaction was when you heard the news about what had happened in Texas?
Jason De León: I think my first reaction really was deja vu because in December of last year, a semi-truck flipped over in southern Mexico and Chiapas and 55 people were killed. As shocking as the events in San Antonio have been, for me just part of a much larger problem that periodically pops up on people's radar, but at the end of the day is something that happens on a daily basis.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That understanding that death is a very real potential outcome of an attempt to cross the US southern border, how widely understood is that among those making the journey?
Jason De León: It used to be that people didn't so much think about this, I would say 20 years ago, and at least the last 10 to 15 years, anyone that undertakes one of these crossings has a very good understanding that there is a high likelihood of death whether that's death in the Arizona desert, or in the south Texas backwoods, or in the jungles of Mexico. It's on everybody's mind. It really just speaks to the fact that these folks understand what they're getting into and they are in such difficult circumstances that they are willing to risk it all.
I think the Border Patrol in the mid-'90s thought that the policies that were being put into place that increased the risk of death, so things like prevention through deterrence, which is a southern border policy that uses the natural environment is an impediment. The Border Patrol and policymakers really thought that this potential risk of death would be enough of an impediment and that if a few people died, word of mouth would spread and people would stop coming. That, unfortunately, has not been the case. Migrant deaths have risen over the last 20 years and it's done very little to actually stop the flow of people.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jason, that's exactly where I was going, is if there is this very real possibility of injury, of death, of separation from one's loved ones, and yet that does not deter the attempt. What does it tell us about the circumstances from which people are coming and what is motivating their desire to migrate or their sense of a need to migrate?
Jason De León: It just really, for me illustrates just how brutal the living conditions are of people coming from places like Honduras, and in parts of Mexico, Haiti, and elsewhere. In 2014 when people were seeing a lot of unaccompanied minors showing up at the border, and we were very shocked people saying, "Oh, my God, I can't-- how could someone put their child at risk?" I think the question we have to ask is, "How bad must it be for someone to send their children alone or to bring their children with them through one of these journeys with his high risk of death?" It really just-- It is that bad in so many of these places.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, talk to me a little bit more about this specific case, which is to say, how exactly is it that it happens that a truck with dozens of human beings, no air conditioning, no water, gets abandoned on the side of the road?
Jason De León: Well, something to keep in mind is that these dozens of people that are in the back of this truck we're just learning now, but many of them are from Mexico, some of them are from Guatemala, some of them are from Honduras. A lot of these folks have been taken-- Their journey was not just through Texas, folks coming from Central America, and having to cross through Mexico, they end up passing through lots of hands. People potentially in the trunks of cars, riding on the tops of trains, walking through the jungle, they get to South Texas, many of them, it could have been a mix of folks who walked part of the journey across the border, and then get picked up, and then put into a safe house.
Once enough people are collected in a safe house by different smugglers then they are all put into a truck, and then attempted to be driven through one of these checkpoints. What ends up happening is, these folks are overloaded into these vehicles. In this case, it appears that the vehicle did not have a working AC system. It's really hot in Texas right now. In the back of one of these trucks, it's basically an oven. It's unclear why the vehicle stopped. Sometimes drivers get spooked and run off or there could be vehicle trouble, the car's not running, and they don't want to deal with it, they just will get out and leave people or they may have not been aware that the air conditioning unit was not working.
So many different things can go wrong, and the folks who are in the back of these trucks, they really don't have much of a clue about what's happening because they're purposely kept in the dark about so many different parts of this journey.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Will their families know what has happened to them and will their bodies find a way to burial in terms of with their families, given these long journeys so many of them made?
Jason De León: That's the hope. It's not always necessarily what ends up happening. The Undocumented Migration Project, we work directly with families of missing migrants, people who have lost loved ones and don't know where they went missing. In a place like Arizona, the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office has over 1,400 unidentified sets of remains, people who are still looking for their loved ones. In this case, because people have all died together, these bodies are found relatively, are found quickly. In Arizona, it can be months or years before remains are recovered, which makes identification difficult.
That's not to say that everybody in this instance will be immediately identified. Folks often travel with no identification, or with fake identification. If they do die, their loved ones might not know where they went missing or where they crossed. Someone in a place like rural Chiapas, where we often work, there might not be much communication happening there. Folks in a lot of those regions don't necessarily even speak Spanish, and so it can be very difficult for a family to begin the process to look for a loved one. We work directly with organizations in Texas and in Arizona, directly with medical examiners, and with [unintelligible 00:09:30]
There's lots of people who are involved in this right now or who will be. Depending on the particular circumstances of an individual, identification can be delayed or in some cases, I know that there have been cases in the past where large groups of migrants have been found deceased and there still remain some of those folks who are unidentified because people might be traveling alone, and so no one in the group knows them and if they had been speaking to members of that group, they might be giving them false information about who they actually were.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We've obviously seen millions of displaced Ukrainians fleeing their country over the course of the past six months, in the context of the Russian war in Ukraine. Is border crossing inherently dangerous and potentially deadly? In other words, whether we're looking at the Ukrainian crisis, if we were to look at the refugees of environmental disasters across the continent of Africa, throughout Asia, when we see people who must migrate under difficult circumstances, is it always tenuous? Is it always deadly, or are there ways, and places in the world, where migration policy leads to different outcomes?
Jason De León: I think in the past, there were other countries that were better at facilitating migration, Canada being a good example. As things have ramped up in the last 5 to 10 years, the Global North, everybody is starting to really harden their geopolitical boundaries, so now, migration is becoming incredibly deadly across the board. I want people to think about the folks that were in the back of this truck, especially the folks coming from Guatemala and Honduras, they have to cross the length of Mexico. Which is as equally brutal as the US-Mexico border, or I would even argue, worse. It's become harder and harder to get to the US-Mexico border across Mexico because of policies.
There's a program called Programa Frontera Sur, that Mexico launched in 2014 with the help of the United States. The idea was that we would help Mexico stop Central Americans from crossing the country so we could deport them before they got to the US-Mexico border. That's just made that process much more deadly for migrants. Mexico is deporting now thousands of Central Americans at the behest of the United States. What that has done is just made this journey so much more deadly for Central Americans.
The US is implicated in it, yet at the same time, they can say, "Well, it's happening on Mexican soil. Any human rights abuses that happen en route before they get here, that's not our fault," despite the fact that the US has actively been training immigration agents in places like Honduras and Mexico with the idea that, "Let's make the journey even more deadly at different parts of it so that we can slow them down before they even get here."
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jason de Léon, professor of anthropology at UCLA and director of the Undocumented Migration Project. Thank you so much for joining us.
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