SAN ANTONIO — In April, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered state police to inspect every commercial vehicle entering Texas through a port of entry, saying the painful step was needed because the Biden administration was not doing its job to secure the border.
Drug cartels, Abbott said, were using “dangerous commercial trucks” to smuggle “immigrants, deadly fentanyl and other illegal cargo” into the state. The “enhanced commercial vehicle inspections” at the border caused hourslong delays at the inland ports, essentially grinding trade with Mexico to a halt and costing Texas businesses millions in losses.
After a week and a half, Abbott ended the inspections, announcing what he called historic security agreements with governors from border states in northern Mexico that he said would slow the flow of drugs and immigrants across the border.
But three months later, in a harrowing reminder of the risks migrants are taking to enter the country, authorities on Monday night discovered an abandoned tractor-trailer in San Antonio that contained the bodies of 46 dead migrants — another five died after being transported to local hospitals.
To immigration experts, the astounding loss of life inside the same kind of commercial vehicle Abbott had targeted in his inspections illustrates just how difficult it is to stem migration into the country, even as he has spent the last year pouring billions of state dollars into securing the border.
“Every data point we’ve seen about migration into Texas from Mexico shows that migrants are getting to the border in the same numbers as before,” said Adam Isacson, a regional security expert at the Washington Office on Latin America. “There’s no numerical evidence that it’s had any numerical impact on migrant flows.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents had more encounters with migrants on the southwestern border of the country in the month that followed Abbott’s mandated vehicle inspections and agreements with Mexican governors. The agency reported 239,416 encounters in May compared to 235,478 encounters in April, when Abbott announced his new border security efforts. In March, the agency had 222,339 encounters.
Abbott’s commercial vehicle inspections were just one of a slew of border security efforts the governor took in April as he attempted to put pressure on President Joe Biden to keep in place Title 42, a Trump-era public health order the federal government had used during the COVID-19 pandemic to turn away millions of migrants at the border, even those seeking asylum. Biden had planned to end the order in May, but a federal judge blocked him from doing so days before its planned end.
Abbott’s other plans included busing migrants to Washington, D.C., placing state troopers in riot gear at the border to meet migrants and installing concertina wire at low-water crossings on the Rio Grande to deter migrants.
After news broke about the migrant deaths on Monday, Abbott, a Republican, pointed the finger squarely at the Democratic president.
“These deaths are on Biden,” Abbott tweeted Monday night. “They are the result of his deadly open border policies. They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law.”
Abbott’s tone was notably softer when a similar tragedy played out in 2017. Thirty-nine migrants were found in sweltering conditions in the back of a commercial truck in San Antonio — 10 ultimately died.
“Human trafficking is an epidemic that Texas is working to eradicate,” Abbott said at the time, when Donald Trump was still president. “To that end, Texas will continue to provide protection for the victims who have been robbed of their most basic rights, and bring down the full weight of the law for the perpetrators of this despicable crime.”
Responding to questions about whether his April border security moves had been successful, Abbott again said “this horrific tragedy” could have been prevented “if President Biden would do his job and secure the border” and added that the federal government “is complicit in Mexican cartels’ human smuggling enterprise, encouraging migrants to risk their lives by not enforcing our nation’s laws and allowing historic levels of illegal crossings.”
“Texas continues responding to the border disaster created by President Biden by deploying thousands of Texas National Guard soldiers and DPS troopers as part of Operation Lone Star to seize millions of lethal doses of fentanyl and stop illegal crossings between checkpoints and points of entry,” Abbott said in a statement. “President Biden swore an oath to uphold the laws of our nation — it’s time he starts living up to that oath and secures our southern border.”
Abbott did not answer questions about the efficacy of his border security efforts or whether he would again impose “enhanced commercial vehicle inspections” at ports of entry as he had warned he would if the number of migrants at the border did not decrease.
The state is slated to spend more than $4 billion on border security during its current two-year budget cycle, which will go toward the construction of a state-funded border wall with Mexico and the deployment of thousands of police and state National Guard members. For years, Democrats, who are in the minority in the Legislature, have complained that there are no metrics to justify the billions of dollars the Republican majority allocates to border security efforts every biennium.
Immigration experts said Abbott’s argument that Biden isn’t enforcing immigration laws doesn’t hold up. Title 42, the public health order implemented by Trump, is still in effect because a federal judge blocked Biden’s efforts to lift it.
The policy has been used more than 2 million times since March 2020 to turn away a majority of people attempting to enter the U.S., including those seeking asylum.
Another Trump administration program, the Migration Protection Protocols, also remains in effect after a federal judge ordered the Biden administration to reinstate it in December. The Abbott-backed program, also called “Remain in Mexico,” allows immigration officials to send asylum-seeking migrants back to Mexico while they await the determination of their cases. Since its reinstatement, officials have sent more than 5,100 migrants back to Mexico under the program, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
Isacson said attempts to enter the country by traveling inside a tractor-trailer show that migrants are no longer attempting to seek asylum because they know they could be turned away under Title 42. Instead, he said, they are turning to more dangerous ways of entering the country.
“The very fact that people are desperate enough to travel in the back of a cargo container tells you that the border is not open,” Isacson said. “If the border was open, no one would have to do that.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported 557 migrant deaths along the southwestern border for the last fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30. Other organizations like the International Organization for Migration, which is a part of the United Nations, has the death toll at 650, its highest count since the organization started counting in 2014.
Gil Kerlikowske, who led U.S. Customs and Border Protection from 2014 to 2017, said the recent death of migrants in the back of a tractor-trailer shows how it is nearly impossible to stop all border crossing attempts by migrants.
“Even with all the electronics and increases in the Border Patrol number of agents, it’s very difficult,” Kerlikowske said.
The criminal organizations involved in human smuggling are transnational entities that have tremendous financial resources, which they use to evade immigration authorities, he said. Instead of putting the migrants through checkpoints and points of entry, he said, they make migrants walk around checkpoints to avoid authorities or keep them in stash houses inland before loading them into other vehicles, including 18-wheelers, to drive them into the country’s interior.
The drivers transporting the migrants often don’t know much about the people they’re driving or who is paying them, Kerlikowske said. But the payout is enough to make them take the risk.
“It’s such an incredibly financially rewarding system,” he said. “For a truck driver to get an envelope of cash of thousands and thousands of dollars, that’s a pretty powerful incentive.”
Isacson said authorities should not expect the number of migrants at the border to go down in the near future. Countries like Nicaragua, Cuba and El Salvador are experiencing political turmoil and others are struggling to recover economically from COVID-19. Those problems at home are leading to mass migration into the United States.
“We’re in this moment of historic migration everywhere,” Isacson said. “You’ve got countries from Colombia to Costa Rica to Mexico having more migrants who want to settle there.”
Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a political science professor at George Mason University who studies U.S.-Mexico relations, said Abbott’s April border security efforts were more about “spectacle” and politics than addressing the complex problem of immigration. In the months since, he’s touted his security agreements with Mexican governors, saying no governor has done more to address border security.
“You cannot deal with one single cause at the border,” Correa-Cabrera said of Abbott’s push to inspect every commercial vehicle that crossed the border. “It doesn’t actually deal with the multiple factors that affect immigration.”
On Tuesday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees expressed concern about the number of migrant deaths occurring as people try to cross the border from Mexico to the United States in the first half of the year, which they said has hit 290 with Monday’s deaths. The international organization warned that migrants were being preyed upon by smugglers in their efforts to cross borders to flee violence, persecution and human rights abuses.
“What is needed are safer alternatives to these dangerous irregular movements, ensuring expedient access to asylum procedures for those seeking international protection,” said Matthew Reynolds, UNHCR representative to the United States and the Caribbean.
This story comes from our KHOU 11 News partners at The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans - and engages with them - about public policy, politics, government, and statewide issues.