WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Tuesday condemned human smuggling networks that "have no regard for the lives they endanger and exploit to make a profit" and defended his administration's border policies following the deaths of at least 51 people in at a remote area outside San Antonio believed to be migrants who had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.
"This incident underscores the need to go after the multi-billion dollar criminal smuggling industry preying on migrants and leading to far too many innocent deaths," Biden said in a statement.
Sixteen other victims were taken to hospitals Monday after a tractor-trailer containing suspected migrants was found abandoned outside of San Antonio. Police said the deaths were the result of heat stroke or heat exhaustion.
Republicans, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, blamed the Biden administration's immigration policies for the accident amid a record number of illegal border crossing at the southern border.
"These deaths are on Biden," Abbott said in a Tweet. "They are a result of his deadly open border policies. They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law."
Biden called "political grandstanding" around the tragedy "shameful."
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre addressed criticism while traveling with the president in Europe for conferences of the Group of Seven nations and NATO.
"The fact of the matter is the border is closed, which is in part why you see people trying to make this dangerous journey using smuggling networks," she said, adding that the administration is focused on efforts to "hold these smugglers accountable."
Biden has faced pushback from immigration activists, some Democrats as well as Republicans for failing to address the rise of migration on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Immigration advocates have expressed feeling betrayed, saying Biden has embraced or even augmented some of the Trump administration's most extreme policies, despite promises to reverse his predecessor's hard-line approach to the issue. Conservatives say Biden's approach to the hot-button issue has fueled new waves of illegal immigration at the border.
Vice President Kamala Harris, appointed as the administration's point person on immigration, traveled to Central America last year, but the efforts have not led to major action or progress.
Biden said a new anti-smuggling campaign led by the White House has resulted in 2,400 arrests in two months. It comes as the number of undocumented migrants seeking to enter the U.S. has reached record highs, producing a major political backlash for Biden.
In May, U.S. Customs and Border Protection encountered 239,416 at the southern border, an uptick from April, which was the highest total for one month in 22 years. CBP officials said that 25% of those encounters had been of individuals who have previously tried to cross the border at least one time and 42% of migrants were expelled under the Title 42 public health order.
A federal judge in May ruled that pandemic-related restrictions on migrants seeking asylum on the southern border must continue, blocking Biden's plan to terminate Title 42.
Contributing: Rebecca Morin.
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.s
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden defends policies following Texas migrant tragedy