A U.S. official revealed on Thursday that the tractor-trailer at the core of a human smuggling effort that resulted in 53 fatalities had earlier passed through an inland Border Patrol post with migrants inside the stuffy vehicle.
About 25 miles northeast of the border city of Laredo, Texas, the vehicle passed through the checkpoint on Interstate 35.
The official said there were 73 people in the truck when it was discovered Monday in San Antonio, including the 53 who died. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation. At the inland crossing, it was unclear whether agents detained the truck’s driver for questioning or if the truck passed through unhindered.
The revelation calls fresh attention to a long-standing policy concern: how well-equipped are the roughly 110 interior highway checkpoints along the Canadian and Mexican borders to identify vehicles carrying persons trying to enter the country illegally? They are typically found 100 miles or less from the border.
Gov. Greg Abbott, who believes the Biden administration’s efforts are insufficient, has ordered Texas state police to run their own inland tractor-trailer checkpoints. How many trucks they would be stopping was unknown.
Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, the alleged operator of the tractor-trailer, also appeared in court on Thursday in San Antonio. Zamorano, who was dressed in a white T-shirt and grey sweatpants, spoke very little during the approximately five-minute hearing. Instead, he answered questions from U.S. Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Chestney with yes or no in regards to his rights and the accusations made against him.
Zamorano was given a second attorney by the judge in addition to a federal public defender because the accusation of smuggling he is facing carries a potential death penalty. She scheduled a hearing for the next week to decide whether or not he qualifies for bail.
Unknowns included how long the migrants were inside the trailer on the hot day and whether the traffickers’ confiscation of their smartphones before placing them inside may have contributed to the high death toll. In contrast to prior incidents, no emergency calls from stranded migrants have been heard in this one.
José Santos Bueso of El Progreso, Honduras, claimed on Thursday that his daughter, 37-year-old Jazmn Nayarith Bueso Nez, had informed him during their most recent call that she was in Laredo and that the smugglers would seize their phones so they would be unable to connect for some time. Around lunchtime on Monday, she sent her 15-year-old son a message informing him that they were leaving for San Antonio and that mom would be unavailable.
In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Border Patrol agents could pull over cars at checkpoints in the interior of the country without a search warrant even if there was no indication that the cars were transporting illegal immigrants. Nevertheless, the practise has energised civil libertarians and immigration groups who believe checkpoints are prime locations for power abuse and racial profiling. Some drivers accuse officers in social media recordings of interrogating them harshly and inappropriately.
The checkpoint in the Laredo region is located on one of the busiest highways along the border, particularly for trucks, raising the danger of limiting trade and causing chaos if every driver is stopped and interrogated.
Officials from the Border Patrol describe the checkpoints as an insufficient but effective second line of defence after the border, noting that agents must strike a balance between law enforcement objectives and obstructing lawful trade and travel.
According to Roy Villareal, a former sector head of the Tucson Border Patrol, although volume and structure vary greatly among checkpoints, agents typically have five to seven seconds to decide whether to investigate a driver.
Ultimately, Villareal said, “crime in general makes it very difficult to determine.” “It’s difficult to say if you’re 100 percent, 50 percent, or 10 percent effective.”
Although it is unconfirmed, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who frequently passes through the checkpoint, claimed that the migrants are thought to have boarded the truck in or near Laredo. That would be in line with smuggling trends, whereby migrants cross the border on foot and conceal themselves in a building or a patch of vegetation on American soil before being picked up and transported to the closest big city.
The truck would raise concerns about the checks even if it were empty. Many migrants die while attempting to go through checkpoints by being dropped off prior to them with the intention of being picked up on the other side. In order to get around a checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas, which is roughly 70 miles north of the border, migrants in the Rio Grande Valley, the biggest corridor for illegal border crossings, must traverse through hot ranches.
Also Read: Could Texas Successfully secede from the US?
According to a report released this month by the Government Accountability Office, just approximately 2% of all Border Patrol arrests—or 35,700—were made at interior checkpoints during the fiscal years 2016 and 2020. During that time, agents seized drugs nearly 18,000 times, and more than 90% of the arrests involved Americans.
For Americans transporting even modest packets of marijuana, the inspections have proven a trap. From fiscal years 2013 to 2016, around 40% of marijuana seizures at Border Patrol checkpoints had Americans carrying less than an ounce, according to a previous GAO analysis.
Abbott made no mention of the scope of the expanded inland inspections Texas announced on Thursday. Texas Department of Public Safety spokesman Lt. Chris Olivarez stated that officers would adopt a “more aggressive attitude.” When asked if that required stopping every truck, Olivarez responded that he was unsure and that it might rely in part on personnel.
It will involve more inspection than usual, according to Olivarez.
As part of his ongoing battle with the Biden administration over immigration policy, Abbott ordered troopers to search every tractor-trailer entering from Mexico in April, causing gridlock at the Texas border for a week. There were mechanical and safety inspections conducted during those times, but neither migrants nor drugs were discovered.