Bloomberg Government subscribers get the stories like this first. Act now and gain unlimited access to everything you need to know. Learn more.
Lawmakers and advocates are pushing for updated border management policies and immigration pathways after the deaths of at least 50 people in a scorching tractor-trailer in Texas this week.
The discovery of the victims drew national outrage and stoked debate on border security. The Biden administration’s critics are calling for tighter restrictions to detect and deter attempts to enter the US, while others push to open legal migration options to cut back on desperate and dangerous attempts.
Homeland Security Investigations, a division of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, is investigating the deaths in San Antonio; it isn’t yet clear whether the victims were being smuggled or trafficked.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a moderate Democrat, called on the Biden administration to funnel more resources to Border Patrol checkpoints, which are scattered 25 to 100 miles from the US-Mexico border, to screen vehicles and look for suspicious behavior. Many migrants are smuggled inside trucks after they cross the border in smaller groups.
“There’s some in my party that don’t want to put money for checkpoints,” Cuellar said in an interview. He spoke with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas about the Texas deaths on Tuesday, and is calling for checkpoints to get more Border Patrol personnel and non-intrusive inspection technology, which is already used to scan some vehicles at border ports of entry.
George W. Bush-era ICE director Julie Myers Wood, now a member of the Council on National Security and Immigration, also pushed for operational changes at the border. US Customs and Border Protection needs resources “to detect and intercept smugglers and rescue migrants in distress, including more personnel and state-of-the-art technology,” she said in a statement.
The focus on funneling more resources to the border has detractors. More money and personnel is needed, but it won’t prevent future tragedies like the Texas deaths, said former CBP acting Commissioner Mark Morgan. If checkpoints increase personnel and screening technology, smugglers would simply plan routes to evade them, he said.
“You could throw all the resources and beef up technology, but unless you send a clear message that we’re not going to allow illegal immigration, they’re going to keep coming,” Morgan said in an interview.
Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration and cross-border policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center, cautioned that expanding operations at Border Patrol checkpoints could have unintended effects on legal commerce and traffic.
Brown and many others who work on immigration policy are advocating for an overhaul of the US asylum system and pathways for migrants to enter the country legally.
“You have very desperate migrants and criminal organizations preying on them increasingly coming to the border,” Brown said. “We have to deal with the desperation of migrants.”
The Texas deaths are the latest event to ratchet up pressure on Congress to overhaul the US immigration system amid record migrant encounters at the border, case backlogs, and severely restricted access to asylum. New bipartisan talks began earlier this year but face an uphill battle with midterm elections looming.
Obstruction from Republicans and some Democrats has repeatedly undermined efforts to create new pathways to citizenship and is “part of the reason why men, women, and children continue to die at the border,” said Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Executive Director Angelica Salas.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) called on his colleagues to commit to ending Trump-era border restrictions that have persisted during the Biden administration.
“These migrants who senselessly lost their lives trying to find a safer life in the United States deserve our commitment to ensure a tragedy like this does not happen again,” he said in a statement.
To contact the reporter on this story: Ellen M. Gilmer in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org