A few hours after San Antonio officials announced nine people died in what they called a human trafficking crime, the Texas lieutenant governor took the tragedy as an opportunity to congratulate himself and demonize cities with sanctuary policies.
“Today’s tragedy is why I made passing Senate Bill 4 to ban sanctuary cities — which is now law — a top priority,” Lieutenant Governor of Texas Dan Patrick wrote in a Facebook post published Sunday evening.
The death count has since risen to 10 victims and seven San Antonio area hospitals took in 20 survivors who were in extremely critical or serious condition, according to San Antonio Fire Department Chief Charles Hood.
In his Facebook post, Patrick claimed sanctuary cities “enable human smugglers.” In reality, most cities with sanctuary policies just refuse to honor federal requests for the transfer of custody of immigrants. Several federal and state courts have found key aspects of these immigration detainers unconstitutional. Just this week, a Massachusetts state court ruled retainer requests are not valid in the state.
The lieutenant governor finished his post by saying “these people paid a terrible price” and offered his condolences. “We continue to pray for the families and friends of the victims,” Patrick said.
U.S. Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, skipped the condolences and jumped straight into his political agenda. “Border security will help prevent this Texas tragedy,” he wrote in a tweet published Sunday morning.
Immigrant rights organizers and attorneys who work in the San Antonio area said the comments made by government officials in the state were disconnected from reality. They said policies like SB4—which bans so-called sanctuary cities across the state—and increased security at the border are to blame for the latest trafficking tragedy in San Antonio.
“More border security, like militarizing the border, will only lead to migrants taking more extreme measures,” Barbie Hurtado, a community organizer in San Antonio with Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), told Splinter.
Hurtado said the comments expressed by the lieutenant governor and senator “showed how blind they are to the problem.”
“It’s not that they want to be here—they are fleeing violence, poverty, and wars and they have no other options,” said Hurtado, who was born in Mexico. Although she currently has permanent resident status, she said she was undocumented for 10 years.
Hurtado’s comments come two weeks after the American Immigration Council and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit against U.S. Customs and Border Protection, accusing the agency of unlawfully turning away asylum seekers who present themselves at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border. A separate recent report documented 125 cases of Border Patrol agents rejecting people who were seeking asylum.
Hurtado said police officers did not contact any of the local immigrant rights groups who provide legal and housing resources for immigrants. Instead, police officials called the Department of Homeland Security.
San Antonio Police Chief William McManus confirmed his agency called Department of Homeland Security officials for assistance. However, it is unclear if some of the survivors are in immigration custody. Emails and voicemails to immigration officials were not returned.
“Instead of dealing with people who have just suffered a tragedy, local police officers called immigration officials, that speaks volumes to where we are,” Alejandro Caceres, an organizer with the immigrant rights group Grassroots Leadership, told Splinter.
He said he was upset by the lieutenant governor’s comments because “even in deaths immigrants are nothing more than political pawns.”
“Elected officials know very well that more border security means moving people into dangerous situations, like packing themselves into 18-wheelers or [journeying through] the desert,” said Caceres.
We’ve reached out to Patrick and Cornyn’s offices for comment and will update if we hear back.
Sunday’s tragedy may sound all too familiar to Texans. In May 2003, 19 people died when they suffocated in a trailer that was abandoned at a truck stop in Victoria, a city about 100 miles away from San Antonio.
Amy Fisher, the policy director at RAICES, said the comments made by Texan officials made her consider whether their policies and political stance valued the lives of immigrants.
“We can talk all day about disagreements in immigration policy, but if we cannot mourn those lives, then it’s hard to have a conversation when the other side seems to not value those lives,” Fisher said.