How could this happen? Leader of Houston immigrant advocacy group sounds off on San Antonio deaths in suspected migrant smuggling operation

Following the deaths of at least 50 people in San Antonio after an 18-wheeler was discovered with migrants inside, Cesar Espinosa, executive director of FIEL Houston, Immigrant Families and Students in the Struggle, spoke with KPRC 2 about some of the issues that he said have led to tragedies such as this one.

HOUSTONFollowing the deaths of at least 50 people near San Antonio after an 18-wheeler was discovered with migrants inside, Cesar Espinosa, executive director of FIEL Houston, Immigrant Families and Students in the Struggle, spoke with KPRC 2 about some of the issues that he said have led to tragedies such as this one.

Espinosa’s organization is a nonprofit immigrant-led group that advocates for just laws for all families, access to higher education for all people regardless of immigration status, and for the rights of all people in unjust situations, according to its organization website.

Prior to the KPRC 2 interview shared in the Q&A below, Espinosa shared this statement:

“What happened in San Antonio is not an accident nor was it necessary. What happened in San Antonio is a direct result of failed policies and failed promises. For years our community has been lied to about legal migration or ‘Pathways’ for people to migrate safely. Yet the US economy and in particular the state of Texas has benefited from these broken policies and broken promises. No, we do not have open borders if we did, 60 plus people would not have made the life ending decision to come to the US in the back of an 18 wheeler and lose their lives in the process. We need democrats republicans and everyone else involved to stop the lies to stop calling this a crisis and then doing nothing about it. Our hearts ache for the men, women and children who perished in San Antonio and we are here to work to make sure that this never ever happens again. But until we fix this broken system it will happen again.”

Q: How could a situation like this happen?

A: Unfortunately, it hasn’t been the first time that this has happened, and I hate to say this but, unfortunately, it will also not be the last time that this happens. As long as we continue to have the current immigration policy that we have today, as long as we continue to have all the push and pull factors on immigration, as long as we continue to have bad policies in our home countries I mean, unfortunately this is going to keep happening. When we first heard about this tragedy in San Antonio, we were reminded of a very similar tragedy -- almost identical -- that happened in Victoria, Texas, in the early 2000s where the same amount of people were left in the back of an 18-wheeler to perish. And we see it, I don’t want to say every year, but we see it very constantly where either here in southwest Houston or Victoria or in Corpus Christi or in San Antonio, wherever it may be, people find themselves in this very precarious situations. And it’s just sad and tragic to think that unfortunately we’re going to have to talk about this again, hopefully not soon, but unfortunately if things continue the way they are, we don’t foresee a change in the near future.

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Q: What is the process when people are smuggled into the U.S.?

A: So there’s so many ways that it occurs and that’s yet another complexity on this issue. We’ll just take the top three examples: one of them is a family member here contacts someone that knows somebody who knows somebody who can smuggle the family member over, they pay him large sums of money -- we’re talking about on average, $7,000 to $10,000 to bring that person over and then they entrust these strangers -- these individuals to take care of their loved ones. Another thing could be a person that was in their home country looks for somebody -- they are usually very well networked with somebody here and abroad to make those connections and tell people, yes, this person can bring you over or lastly, and most tragically, another scenario could be somebody -- we see this especially in Houston a lot -- where young women, in particular, mostly, are picked up in their home countries and they’re smuggled, they’re trafficked into the U.S. to service -- to you know, to serve in prostitution or other gang-related activities like that. All to say that those are just three examples that exist within thousands of scenarios for people to come over. One of the things that in most cases we see that these people come over because things have just gotten so bad in their home countries being economically with the cartels or with insecurity that they choose to take this very perilous track into the United States. One of the things that we really want to push back on is the talking point -- and we’ve seen it all this morning -- of the very disrespectful message by republicans by Sen. Cruz, by Cornyn, by other folks who are specifically in the Republican Party who are saying this is due to open borders. If this was an open border situation these...people that died yesterday would have presented themselves at the U.S.-Mexico border, would have said, ‘Hey I want to come in,’ and they would have been let in and you know, given all the rights and privileges but unfortunately it doesn’t work that way, for one reason or another, which we also don’t condone to get in the back of an 18-wheeler and in essence, be suffocated to death in 150 plus-degree weather. So right now is not the time for talking points, it is the time to find solutions and ask ourselves, what pushes a mom to bring her kids over -- on the back of an 18-wheeler and to potentially lose their lives in this very tragic manner.

Q: What is the role of organized crime in all of this?

A: Organized crime is in fact that, it’s organized crime so there’s networks of people here, on the other side of the border, everywhere telling -- oftentimes lying to people -- telling them yes, it’s so easy -- just pay us this much we can get you across and they do -- they take advantage of the broken policies -- the broken system in order to take advantage of those most vulnerable. So we hear it all the time. I mean, we haven’t even gotten into the cases where folks do successfully make it over and they’re kidnapped here and they’re held at ransom. I mean, horrible, horrible things that happen to people while people are making this decision in search for a better life.

Q: What is a coyote?

A: So basically, a coyote is someone who for money or for another kind of incentive brings a person over illegally into the country. And in essence, that’s what they do, their tactics can range from dropping off people here, bringing people here with fake documents to putting people in the back of an 18-wheelers or in trunks of cars or in seats of cars and bringing them across illicitly.

Q: What do you think about official handling of these cases?

A: These are very complex systems, once again, they are rings of organized crime so not only do they have drivers and leaders, but they also have people who go out and promote them in Guatemala, Mexico, or Honduras, wherever it may be, and then they have folks on this side waiting with safe houses with money, with cash, with a huge exchange of money, and these are very complex rings that at the end of the day (Customs and Border Protection) and (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) should do a better job at trying to dismantle these systems to not have these situations happen and again, unfortunately, it goes back to the complexity of the issue where there’s hundreds if not thousands of these rings out there, of these gangs, of these organized people that continue to do this until we find a solution so folks don’t have to see out their guidance or their assistance or their services. I mean, at the end of the day, those who pay, pay the ultimate price which is their lives and this is just one of the horrific ways to die. A few years back we were hearing an increase of stories of the cartels getting into the coyote game and then having people smuggle drugs and cocaine on their back and then being left to -- once they couldn’t go any further -- just leave them in the desert to die and so you know, a horrible death that people have to go through all because we have broken policies on both sides of the border and both sides of the aisle, as well as everywhere.

Q: What do you want people to know?

A: We want people to know that once again, this is not a direct result of open borders. People throw those words around so much that sometimes people begin to believe, but this is not an open border issue. This is an issue of a border that is secure that people get through because there’s so many people trying to come through and unfortunately lose their lives in the process so what we should be looking for is a way to change policy and to change laws so that if we continue to use immigrants -- so they don’t have to continue to put their lives in danger by crossing in this illegal manner -- and one of the things that we always talk to people about -- people often criticize us and FIEL for saying, ‘Oh you encourage people to come.’ No we don’t. Like, we don’t want people to die, and we talk to people and some approach us and say, ‘I’m thinking about doing this,’ we tell them, ‘Don’t do it.’ It’s not worth it. But what we would rather tell them is that if you apply for this program that allows you to come in legally and then leave once you’re done working, we’d be more than happy to do that. Because we don’t feel that the American Dream is worth losing your life over.

Q: What do you think the solution could be?

A: We really need to fix our broken immigration policies. There’s a lot of folks who are going and then coming back because they don’t have a legal means to do it and if we would provide folks with legal means to do it then they would do it. And one of the reasons why people come is because there’s corporations and jobs and people still offering -- taking advantage of people -- (by) paying low wages to folks, so it really is a larger system that folks are a part of. That there is no simple solution, but there can be the beginning of a solution if we would revamp our immigration laws to not have them be so archaic.

Q: What is the reaction in your organization and in the community to an event like this?

A: We’re so numb to these types of situations that just say, well, you know, things happen, you can expect things like this to happen -- to folks who are actually impacted by things like this happening. You know, with all of our hearts, we would hope not to have a person, but we expect some people were waiting for some of those folks who were on that truck (in San Antonio) to come here to Houston, just because of the proximity we have to the U.S.-Mexico border, just because this is usually a route that they take there to meet with family members here or to go to other parts of the country from here. We haven’t yet been contacted but we do expect -- as has happened many times in the past -- for a family to come forward and say I’m from Houston, I’m waiting for my family member and this happened. And obviously, losing a loved one in this manner can be a life-altering event. The thing that we do ask those people to do is, at the end of the day, to cooperate with CBP and ICE so that we can hopefully make a dent in dismantling some of these organizations who are taking advantage of a lot of these folks who are very vulnerable. Whether they contact ICE or CBP directly, if they’re too afraid to contact ICE or CBP directly, they can contact us and we’ll facilitate those conversations, but look for help, don’t stay quiet, because at the end of the day, your actions could save somebody else’s life.

For complete coverage of the suspected migrant smuggling operation near San Antonio and to read others’ opinions on the border situation, read more in the following reports.

RELATED: Death toll now at 50 in suspected migrant smuggling operation near San Antonio, Mexican president says

RELATED: Biden calls migrant deaths ‘horrifying and heartbreaking

RELATED: A global look at trafficked migrants suffocation deaths


About the Author:

Amanda Cochran is an Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. She specializes in Texas features, consumer and business news and local crime coverage.