SAN ANTONIO — The bodies of at least 46 people believed to be migrants who entered the United States from Mexico were found dead Monday in and around a trailer truck that had been abandoned on the outskirts of San Antonio , state and city officials said.
At least 16 others, including children, were taken alive to local hospitals but suffered from heat exhaustion and apparent dehydration, city officials said during a news conference at the site of what appears to be the worst migrant deaths in the United States in recent years.
“The plight of migrants seeking refuge is always a humanitarian crisis,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg told reporters late Monday. “But tonight we are dealing with a terrible human tragedy.”
San Antonio Police Department Chief William McManus said three people were taken into custody. Earlier in the day, officers had been searching for the vehicle’s driver, who appeared to have exited the truck at some point before being spotted in a remote area near railroad tracks and auto junkyards southwest of downtown. Chief McManus did not say if the driver was among those arrested.
The truck was spotted by a worker from a nearby company who “heard a call for help and came out to investigate,” Chief McManus said, adding that the worker had partially opened the trailer’s doors and found a number of bodies inside.
Most of the bodies, including men and women, were found inside the truck around 6 p.m., although at least one was outside the vehicle. Fire Chief Charles Hood said the people who were taken to hospitals felt “hot” and appeared to be suffering from “heat exhaustion, heat exhaustion”. The truck, although designed for refrigeration, had “no visible, working air conditioning,” he said.
Texas state officials, already managing record numbers of migrant crossings from Mexico, have braced for a new surge this spring and summer. All of the victims are believed to have entered the United States illegally and been taken north. The nearest border crossing is about 140 miles away.
Recognition…Eric Gay/Associated Press
“These deaths are at the expense of Biden,” Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said in a brief statement on Twitter. “They are the result of his deadly open borders policy. They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law.”
Officials did not say how people had died but suggested the extreme heat was a cause. San Antonio and other cities across Texas experienced heat at or near record levels in June. The temperature on Monday in the city had exceeded 100 degrees.
“Imagine being left to die in an 18 wheeler,” wrote Rep. Tony Gonzales, whose congressional district stretches from the outskirts of San Antonio to the border, on Twitter. “Will @AliMayorkas even mention their names?” he added, referring to Alejandro Mayorkas, the Homeland Security Minister.
A spokesman for the Texas State Police referred questions to the San Antonio Police Department, which did not respond to requests for comment. The Department of Homeland Security should take over the investigation.
The federal agency said in a statement that it is working with state and local authorities to investigate the deaths. Agents from Homeland Security Investigations, a unit specializing in smuggling, were gathering evidence in the trailer, officials said.
San Antonio is a major transit point for migrants en route from Texas to locations in the United States. Tens of thousands of migrants have passed through the city in recent months, according to immigrant advocates.
For more than a year, Mr. Abbott has mobilized billions of dollars in state funds to increase the presence of Texas State Police and National Guard soldiers at the border. But the effort has been unable to stem the flow of migrants crossing through Mexico either to seek asylum or, in other cases, to evade authorities and enter the country illegally.
Earlier Monday, Mr Abbott took to Twitter to tout his government’s efforts and released statistics on the number of migrants arrested. Mr. Abbott’s office did not immediately comment on the deaths near San Antonio before the governor returned to Twitter to confirm the deaths and attack President Biden, a Democrat whom Mr. Abbott blamed for the large number of migrants arriving wanted to do.
Ruby Chavez, 53, a homemaker who lives about a mile from where the truck was found, heard about the discovery on TV and then saw a helicopter circling overhead. She came to the scene with her husband Ruben to pray.
Recognition…Lisa Krantz for the New York Times
The area is a place known to locals as a “drop-off point” for migrants, the couple said.
“You can tell they just come here. We see them with backpacks or ask for food or money,” Ms. Chavez said. “It’s sad. And now I hear there are children.”
Her husband added: “You know this area. You jump off the train and are picked up.”
Dozens of police officers and firefighters gathered along Quintana Road where the truck was found, a road between train tracks and car junkyards that has a rural feel despite being within city limits. Several farms are nearby.
In recent days, law enforcement officials at the border and in nearby counties have expressed concern about the number of migrants arriving in Texas, which has long been one of the busiest borders for migrants. Federal officials have registered a record number of illegal crossings across the southern border for this time of year, with more than 44,000 registered last month in the Del Rio and Eagle Pass area alone, the border town closest to San Antonio.
Smugglers often transport large numbers of migrants in trailers, vans, or SUVs after meeting them in remote areas after managing to enter the United States.
One of the deadliest smuggling incidents occurred in 2003, when sheriff’s deputies discovered the bodies of 17 migrants, including a 7-year-old boy, in an overheated trailer in Victoria, a south Texas city. When officers located the trailer at a rest area, they found that the migrants trapped inside had attempted to punch out air holes so they could breathe. Another migrant later died in a hospital.
In 2017, 10 men died in San Antonio after riding in a tractor-trailer with up to 200 migrants who were without food, water or fresh air for hours. Nearly 30 other people were hospitalized and the driver was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the smuggling operation.
Accidents near the border are also common, sometimes during law enforcement chases.
In 2012, a Ford pickup full of more than 20 undocumented migrants crashed into two trees in south Texas, killing 15 people. In March 2021, 13 people were killed in a remote part of Southern California when a jammed Ford Expedition crashed into the lane of a semi-truck. And last August, at least 10 people died and 20 others were injured after a pickup truck crashed in south Texas.
Recognition…Ariana Drehsler for the New York Times
In May, agents along the border detained more than 239,000 migrants, an all-time high, including people who had tried to enter before. The United States implemented an emergency public health policy known as Title 42, which has resulted in about half of migrants being turned back to Mexico or flown back to their home countries.
However, an increasing number of migrants from India, Russia, Senegal and other countries cannot be deported quickly because their countries do not accept them and they are allowed entry into the United States. At the border, they are placed in deportation proceedings and receive summonses to court or to report to the immigration authorities in the interior of the country.
“This terrible tragedy is a reminder that we need a safe and orderly way for people to seek asylum,” said San Antonio Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democrat. “Continued use of Title 42 has made desperate people even more desperate.”
The policy has also given migrants an incentive to make repeated attempts to cross the border if they are unsuccessful on the first attempt, immigration analysts say, a factor in the escalating number of border crossings over the past year.
In addition to the single adults who typically make such crossings, thousands of families and children arrive from Central America every day, fueled by violence, natural disasters and the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
There has also been a surge in the number of single adults from Mexico and Central America seeking to enter the United States, often by treacherous means to avoid detection by authorities.
It was unclear where the people found on Monday came from.
Miriam Jordan and Eliza Fawcett contributed coverage.