san antonio truck deaths
8 bodies found dead in tractor-trailer
01:36 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

On Sunday, a Walmart employee discovered a tractor-trailer with dozens of people -- several dead, many injured

Raul Reyes: Rather than politicize the incident, we need to treat the victims with the human decency they deserve

CNN  — 

Early Sunday morning, a horrific scene unfolded in the parking lot of a San Antonio Walmart. A call from a Walmart employee led to the discovery of dozens of alleged undocumented immigrants packed inside an 18-wheeler.

Authorities said at least nine people died, and more than a dozen were assessed as having life-threatening injuries. The air conditioning in the truck was not working on a day when temperatures in San Antonio ranged from 90 to 100 degrees.

Perhaps nearly as shocking as this report were the harsh early reactions on conservative news and social media. Some Americans are unwilling to accord undocumented immigrants sympathy even when they are in distress or near death. This should not come as a surprise given that we have a president who has never missed an opportunity to demonize the undocumented.

But instead of reacting to this tragedy with anger and outrage, we should view these migrants with empathy. They are the human toll of our broken immigration system.

There is little doubt that the dead and injured inside the truck were seeking to enter the United States in violation of the law. As we learn more about this incident, shouldn’t we ask why they were doing so? If the victims fit recent patterns of illegal immigration, many were likely from Central America – not Mexico. These people, while they may be coming to the United States in hopes of working, are fleeing gangs and violence at home.

Many Central Americans have been driven to attempt such dangerous methods of illegal entry because of our own government. That’s because this administration’s tougher border controls have meant that many asylum seekers have been turned away at the border despite the fact that they have a legal right to seek safety here under international law.

In May, the nonprofit group Human Rights Watch released a report alleging that Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, agents were refusing entry or detaining potential asylum seekers. Earlier this year, the American Immigration Council filed a complaint against CBP protesting the “systemic denial of entry to asylum seekers.” A spokesperson for CBP says there has been “no policy change” affecting asylum seekers.

However, if there has been a policy change, we would actually be increasing the chance that people will turn to cartels and smugglers.

Unfortunately, nuances of immigration policy do not seem to matter to some of our fellow citizens. On Breitbart, reports referred to the dead and injured as “illegal immigrants,” stripping these people of their humanity even as some faced permanent brain damage; never mind that among those in the truck were at least two teenagers.

On Twitter, the hashtag #SanAntonioWalmart was trending, with folks demanding that we build a wall or crack down on sanctuary cities. “32 illegal & criminal aliens & 8 dead including kids w/o parents found in trailer in front of sanctuary city San Antonio Walmart” said one user.

Where are the calls to crack down on those who hire undocumented workers, or to go after human traffickers?

What will likely infuriate some of these immigration hard-liners is that a few of the migrants apprehended in the truck could, as a result of their harrowing experience, be eligible for a chance to stay here. Under current law, victims of trafficking who cooperate with the government in identifying and prosecuting those leading such illegal operations can be eligible for asylum status under the “T” visa program. Potential “T” visa recipients, besides cooperating with US officials, need to show that they would face hardship or harm if they were removed from the United States.

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    The bigger story beyond the San Antonio tragedy is that deporting people and building a wall will never amount to a coherent, effective immigration policy. Most Americans recognize this. According to the latest CNN/ORC poll, nearly two-thirds of Americans favor a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented.

    As long as we only crack down on illegal entries, desperate people will still risk their lives at the hands of smugglers. Sadly, our President has set an inhumane tone on immigration, from calling people “illegal immigrants” (a pejorative and inaccurate term) to falsely claiming that undocumented immigrants voting resulted in his losing the popular vote.

    The smugglers involved in the San Antonio incident deserve to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. And, for now, the migrants who have been rescued deserve compassion, not condemnation. This should not be seen as a liberal or conservative viewpoint; it is a matter of basic decency toward vulnerable human beings.