The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee advances human rights through grassroots collaborations.
Attacks on Sanctuary Will Mean More San Antonios
By on August 2, 2017
We awoke last Monday to the horrifying news that ten people had died of dehydration and asphyxiation in a tractor-trailer in San Antonio, Tex., where they had been trapped without water or air conditioning for a 150-mile drive. Our partner in San Antonio, RAICES, organized a vigil the night of the tragedy to honor the victims. “We hope and pray for the survivors to recover quickly and find peace, safety, and justice,” RAICES wrote in a statement to their supporters. “This heartbreaking situation highlights the lengths that migrants will go to seek refuge in the United States. We value, honor, and respect migrant lives.”
These individuals were not the victims of the driver. They were the victims of an international economic system that pushes families into debt and hunger and criminalizes them for doing what is necessary to survive and provide for their loved ones. They suffered under a border enforcement regime that has grown so reckless and unaccountable that former agents are voicing opposition and migrants and asylum-seekers are forced to maneuver unimaginably dangerous crossings rather than risk an encounter with Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
Far-right politicians moved quickly to exploit the tragedy in their continued campaigns against pro-immigrant local policies. Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick released a statement declaring that “Sanctuary cities…enable human smugglers and cartels. Today, these people paid a terrible price and demonstrate why we need a secure border[.]” In Washington, D.C., Attorney General Jeff Sessions justified his continued attacks on sanctuary efforts stating, “So-called ‘sanctuary’ policies…encourage illegal immigration and even human trafficking…This can have tragic consequences, like the ten deaths we saw in San Antonio this weekend.”
Sessions and Patrick are attacking the very sanctuary policies that could have prevented the tragedy in San Antonio from ever occurring. By ensuring that undocumented members of our community can depend on the services they need, without fear of deportation or immigration consequences, sanctuary can save lives.
If this government truly cared about protecting migrants from dehydration and exposure, it would not have raided a humanitarian aid camp administered by UUSC’s partners No More Deaths, as it did earlier this summer, thereby cutting off a critical lifeline to migrants in the desert. It would not be trying to militarize further an enforcement system that has already forced thousands of migrants to their deaths in inaccessible regions of the borderlands. Likewise, if this administration were concerned about transnational criminal groups like MS-13, as it frequently claims, it would not be doing the dirty work of these gangs for them by returning their victims to danger.
By making it all but impossible to cross the border by safe means, Sessions and Patrick – and the administrations they represent – have virtually guaranteed that more people will have to trust their fate to smugglers. Even migrants with well-founded asylum claims who arrive at the ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border are returned to their persecutors without screening, leaving them with no choice but to cross by the most clandestine and dangerous routes. The narrowly averted tragedy in Mexico this weekend, involving 147 Central American migrants trapped in another tractor-trailer, reveals the potential for more tragedies like these if policies don’t change.
Reports out of Austin, Tex. indicate that many undocumented residents are afraid even to seek treatment for injuries or to attend school. The infiltration of federal immigration activities into an ever-wider array of local government activities – a threat that will be magnified by Texas’ Senate Bill 4, which bans sanctuary cities across the state – will only exacerbate this situation. The San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) seemed to justify these fears in the worst possible way by its actions on Sunday, calling federal immigration authorities to the scene of the tragedy. As RAICES wrote in its statement: “Instead of offering a humanitarian response, SAPD called an enforcement agency with a track record of causing migrant deaths and criminalizing, detaining, and deporting vulnerable populations.”
UUSC will continue to stand with our partners around the world in defense of migrant rights. The people who died on Sunday were not a statistic—they were families fleeing poverty and looking for a better life. Their deaths are an accusation against efforts that devalue people and criminalize poverty. Our hearts are with them and their loved ones in the long struggle for justice.