After immigrants die in Texas, right-wing media push for policies that would exacerbate the problem

Experts agree that hardline immigration policies correlate with an increase in immigrant deaths

Ten immigrants were killed and many others hospitalized after human traffickers promising to smuggle them into the United States failed to provide them with adequate ventilation or water for the journey. Conservative media figures have responded to the tragedy with calls for stricter immigration laws -- in particular, stricter border enforcement policies and anti-sanctuary city laws -- that experts have said would serve only to exacerbate the problem by diverting immigrants to more dangerous routes and empowering human traffickers without addressing the root causes of immigration.

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Operation to smuggle migrants into the U.S. claims 10 lives, with many others in critical condition

NY Times: Ten immigrants dead, nearly 30 others hospitalized after being trapped in a tractor-trailer during human trafficking operation. On July 23, authorities in San Antonio, TX, discovered eight migrants dead and many others in critical condition from “heat exposure and asphyxiation” after they were trapped in a tractor-trailer in an apparent human smuggling crime, The New York Times reported. A July 24 story from the Times reported a total of 10 dead. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg commented that the tragedy “shines a bright light on the plight of immigrants looking for a better life and victims of human trafficking.” From the July 23 Times article:

The authorities here discovered eight bodies in a tractor-trailer in a Walmart parking lot early Sunday morning in what they said was a human trafficking crime that underscored the perils facing migrants trying to enter the United States by any means available.

By Sunday afternoon, another person had died at a hospital, according to a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. All of the dead were men.

The eight people whose bodies were initially found were believed to have died from heat exposure and asphyxiation, a spokesman for the San Antonio Police Department said.

Federal officials said in a statement on Sunday that 39 people had been in the trailer. The city’s fire chief, Charles Hood, said at a news conference that 30 were taken to hospitals; about 20 were in “extremely severe” or critical condition.

In a statement, Mayor Ron Nirenberg of San Antonio called the episode “tragic,” adding that it “shines a bright light on the plight of immigrants looking for a better life and victims of human trafficking.” [The New York Times, 7/23/17, 7/24/17]

Right-wing media claim that building a border wall and defunding sanctuary cities would prevent similar incidents from happening in the future

Fox's Jesse Watters: Sanctuary cities “encourage smuggling and then people die.” Fox host Jesse Watters posited that building a border wall and defunding sanctuary cities would be “humane,” suggesting that these policies would deter dangerous illegal immigration, while existing policies have encouraged illegal immigration. From the July 24 edition of Fox News’ The Five:

JESSE WATTERS (CO-HOST): I see what Kennedy says, that America is a magnet for immigrants, but sanctuary cities are a magnet for illegal immigrants. I think when you put the wall on the border and you defund sanctuary cities, I actually think that's humane because I think some of these policies, this open border policy, they don't deter this stuff. They encourage smuggling and then people die. So if the Democrats are the party of compassion and they want to be the humane party, they can't at the same time on the other hand encourage these policies where people are actually dying coming across the border. And these smugglers, they're like modern-day slave traders. It's the same kind of thing where they pile bodies into a hot truck on top of each other and people die. It's the same thing what they did the slave ships. It's disgusting, and I think more people need to get involved to crack down on it because it keeps happening over and over again. [Fox News, The Five, 7/24/17]

Fox contributor Steve Cortes: “We need a wall. We need ICE unshackled, ... and we need to end the madness of sanctuary cities.” Trump adviser and Fox contributor Steve Cortes blamed the deaths on a “porous and lawless border” and used the tragedy to advocate for a border wall, fewer restrictions on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, and ending sanctuary cities. Cortes also praised “president promise-keeper, President Trump” for getting “the border under control” and fearmongered that there “could have been ISIS fighters” inside the truck. From the July 24 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends:

ED HENRY (CO-HOST): Lawmakers now ramping up their calls for, yes, immigration reform and stopping sanctuary cities once and for all. Here to react: Fox News contributor, Trump Hispanic advisory council member Steve Cortes. Steve, good morning.

STEVE CORTES: Good morning.

HENRY: First thing that jumps out at me is what in the world is happening? This was in the San Antonio area?

CORTES: Right. You know, Ed, what a terrible human tragedy. There were two children in that truck. I guess what I would point out is that border security is first and foremost an issue to protect Americans. We need to secure our border for the economic and national security of American citizens. But it's also, by the way, a very good idea for Mexico and for Latin Americans because a porous and lawless border, which is what we’ve had for decades in this country, is also bad for them, as we see in this very human tragedy that unfolded in San Antonio.

STEVE DOOCY (CO-HOST): Steve, are we to believe inside that trailer there were 100 people apparently, and at midnight there was no water, and that's when things -- somebody popped out and said we need some water or something like that. Are we to believe that that semitrailer, where all you'd have to do is open the back gate to see 100 people in there, just drove in from Mexico and nobody stopped it?

CORTES: Right. It's incredible, Steve. Now, here's the good news, though. I don't want to just talk about the bad news. The good news is our president, president promise-keeper, President Trump, has largely already gotten our border under control. ICE tells us that illegal crossing are down as much as 70 percent year over year. However, they need to be down a hundred percent, as we see again from this human tragedy. But also, it's not just a human tragedy. I think this is also a national security wake-up call because while there's no indications that any of these people had any ill will toward the United States, that very well could have been a truck full of terrorists. It could have been ISIS fighters. It could have been anybody in there. If it's that easy to get a truck full of human people into the United States, we have a problem that needs to be addressed. We need a wall. We need ICE unshackled, which is already happening in this country, and we need to end the madness of sanctuary cities. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 7/24/17]

Breitbart promoted Republican claim that sanctuary cities were to blame for the tragedy. In an article titled “10 Illegal Aliens Are Dead Because of Sanctuary Cities, Says Texas Lt. Governor,” Breitbart trumpeted Republican Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s baseless assertion that “sanctuary cities entice people to believe they can come to America and Texas and live outside the law. Sanctuary cities also enable human smugglers and cartels.” Patrick is currently rallying to sell Texas Senate Bill 4 (SB 4), a law that would defund cities in Texas that do not honor ICE detainer requests and that is being litigated in the courts. [Breitbart, 7/24/17; USA Today, 5/30/17]

The Daily Caller cited “top Texas officials” to say the incident “shows that a tough anti-sanctuary city law is needed more than ever.” The Daily Caller used the immigrant deaths to focus on Texas’ SB 4, reporting that its staunchest advocates, including Patrick, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), say the deaths indicate the need for the measure. From the July 24 article:

The discovery of nine dead bodies and more than 30 injured people inside a sweltering tractor trailer in San Antonio shows that a tough anti-sanctuary city law is needed more than ever, top Texas officials said Sunday.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wrote on Facebook that sanctuary cities “entice” people to come to U.S. illegally and place their fate in the hands of human smugglers who have no regard for their well-being, the Texas Tribune reported.

“Sanctuary cities entice people to believe they can come to America and Texas and live outside the law. Sanctuary cities also enable human smugglers and cartels,” Patrick wrote. “Today, these people paid a terrible price and demonstrate why we need a secure border and legal immigration reform so we can control who enters our country.”

Patrick, along with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, has been one of the state’s most enthusiastic supporters of SB4, a law that requires local jurisdictions to cooperate with federal immigration authorities and allows police to ask about the immigration status of people they arrest or lawfully detain. SB4, which was set to go into effect Sept. 1, is currently under a legal challenge from civil rights groups and the four largest cities in Texas. [The Daily Caller, 7/24/17]

Conservative commentator Ann Coulter blamed the loss of life on “the fact that we don’t have a wall.”

[Twitter, 7/24/17]

Strict border enforcement does not deter immigrants from crossing the border; it forces them to take more dangerous routes

Migration Policy Institute: Fortified walls have not been shown to prevent border crossings but do tend to funnel migrants to more dangerous paths. The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute (MPI) found that in the past, border walls meant to keep out undocumented immigrants “did not prevent crossings … but instead shifted flows to other locations that were more remote or less fortified.” MPI’s Reece Jones wrote that after the construction of a border wall at the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1990s, the coroner’s office in Tucson, AZ, “saw a substantial increase in the number of migrant deaths in the years after the hardening of the border, as migration routes shifted to the more dangerous deserts.” From the October 5, 2016, report:

While advanced as a popular solution, the evidence is mixed on whether walls are effective at preventing large movements of people across borders. Of course, there is little doubt that walls short in length and heavily guarded with troops or law enforcement officers can be very effective at stopping movement.


This was demonstrated in the 1990s on the U.S.-Mexico border when the first sections of fencing were built in El Paso and near San Diego, supported by large deployments of Border Patrol agents. In the weeks that followed, crossings in those sectors dropped to almost zero. Similarly, the construction of Hungary’s border fence in 2015 was backed up with border guards, and consequently, crossings dropped substantially.

However, in both cases fortified walls did not prevent crossings into the United States and European Union entirely, but instead shifted flows to other locations that were more remote or less fortified. In the U.S. case, as high-traffic urban routes were closed, migrants and smugglers began to cross in the remote and dangerous deserts of western Arizona. Child migration from Central America to the United States, which surged in 2014, has also been undeterred by enforcement (in fact most unaccompanied minors turn themselves in to border agents), as tens of thousands of children from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala spontaneously arrive at the U.S. border with Mexico to claim asylum, many knowing they would be admitted into the U.S. pending removal hearings. In the European migration crisis in 2016, once land routes through the Balkans were closed, migrants adjusted by shifting their routes to board boats across the Mediterranean, frequently from Libya.

The funneling of migrants to alternative routes points to one statistic that correlates closely with the construction of more walls: an increase in the number of deaths. As easier routes are closed, migrants choose ever more dangerous paths to reach their destination. At the U.S.-Mexico border this was evident in the decline in deaths in California which coincided with a rapid rise in Arizona. The Tucson, Arizona coroner’s office saw a substantial increase in the number of migrant deaths in the years after the hardening of the border, as migration routes shifted to the more dangerous deserts. The Tucson morgue recorded an average of 18 migration-related deaths per year in the 1990s, while in the 2000s it saw almost 200 per year. In 2010 the Border Patrol found more than 250 bodies in the Tucson sector, despite a decline in the total number of border apprehensions. [Migration Policy Institute, 10/5/16]

Washington Office on Latin America: “With more fencing, migrants may attempt the crossing in even more remote areas, where the probability of death will be even higher.” The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) noted in 2017 that “violence, poverty, and family ties ensure that migrants will continue attempting the risky journey through the border region’s inhospitable wilderness zones,” and more fencing might encourage immigrants to cross the border in more dangerous areas. In a 2013 article, WOLA’s Adam Isacson and Maureen Meyer attributed a spike in immigrant deaths in 2012 and 2013 to increased border security. They pointed out that “only in 2005 were there more migrant deaths” than in 2012, but in 2005, “Border Patrol captured more than three times as many migrants as it did in 2012.” The WOLA experts explained that “a big reason” for the increase in deaths relative to apprehensions was “tightened U.S. border security, which has led people to attempt the crossing in ever more remote, treacherous, and risky border zones—often, desert wildernesses very far from population centers.” [Washington Office on Latin America, 7/24/17; 4/24/13]

Telemundo’s Raúl Torres: “In addition to making immigration more dangerous” border militarization policies have also empowered human smugglers. Telemundo’s Raúl Torres spoke to immigrants and immigrant advocacy workers who explained that the “militarization policies” at the border have not deterred immigrants but have only made the journeys more dangerous and allowed human smugglers -- “coyotes” -- to charge more to smuggle immigrants across the border. Torres also pointed to statistics from the Mexican government that showed that deaths by Mexicans trying to cross the border have been increasing over the years. One immigrant who had crossed the border in the past but was deported, Arturo, told Torres that he saw “multiple people dead” during his journey but, despite the rigorous journey, he will attempt to cross again out of necessity. From the March 29 edition of Noticiero Telemundo:

JOSE DIAZ BALART (HOST): The number of Mexicans dead crossing the border has duplicated in just one year. Those are statistics from the Mexican government that reflect that hardline immigration policies is not stopping immigrants, but rather it is pushing them to more dangerous crossings. Raúl Torres with the report.

RAÚL TORRES: The path is full of dreams but also of crosses and death. This is the Arizona desert. When Arturo entered into the United States illegally here, he saw death firsthand.

ARTURO: I saw like three dead bodies.

TORRES: They recently deported him to Mexico, but he says, like many immigrants, he will cross the desert again.

ARTURO: Again I’ll do it alone because I don’t have enough money to pay the “coyotes” [human smugglers].

TORRES: During his journey, whether it be through the desert, the river, or United States towns, between 2010 and 2016, 2,052 undocumented Mexican immigrants died, according to the Mexican Department of Foreign Affairs. 1,078 lost their lives in Arizona, 822 in Texas, 143 in California, and 9 in New Mexico. Immigrant advocacy organizations blame the United States government.

REYNA ARAIBI: With the militarization policies that they have implemented, they have pushed immigrants to the most dangerous zones.

TORRES: In addition to activists, immigrants themselves assert that Donald Trump’s policies -- in addition to making immigration more dangerous -- have also caused “coyotes” [human smugglers] to charge them even more money. The cross at the Rio Grande is the second most dangerous. The Mexican government claims that in just one year the number of Mexicans who died [crossing] increased by 90.3 percent. It went from 166 [deaths] to 316 [deaths]. [Telemundo, Noticiero Telemundo, 3/29/17]

La Opinión: Incidents like the San Antonio tractor-trailer smuggling deaths increase with hard-line immigration policies, according to one expert. Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión reported that “taking policing measures without resolving the reasons for why desperate people emigrate only tends to create more dangers for immigrants and increases the earnings of coyotes and trafficking networks,” according to Tony Talbott, an expert in human trafficking at the University of Dayton, Ohio. The article also noted that during the Clinton administration, “due to new and restrictive [immigration] laws and Operation Guardian, immigration routes were diverted to the Arizona deserts and the Rio Grande area, resulting in an increase of more than 1000% in deaths during crossing.” [La Opinión, 7/24/17]

Immigrants emigrate because they need to -- not because of sanctuary cities

Experts say there is “no evidence” that sanctuary cities attract more illegal immigration. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, three current or retired university professors wrote that “there is no evidence” that sanctuary cities exhibit a “magnet effect” that stimulates more undocumented immigration, despite claims from Trump and other conservatives. They explained that undocumented immigrants are “drawn to the United States by economic opportunity and family ties,” while “some are fleeing gang and drug violence. None of these key drivers of migration would be weakened by the abolition of sanctuary cities.” [Los Angeles Times, 2/2/17]