The deaths of 50 people crossing into the US from countries south of the border on Monday prompted an outpouring of compassion from some while others seized on the chance to criticize American immigration policies.
After the dead were found in a trailer abandoned in a remote area in a south-west part of his city, San Antonio’s mayor, Ron Nirenberg, called the discovery “a horrific human tragedy”.
“The plight of migrants seeking refuge is always a humanitarian crisis, but tonight we are dealing with a horrific human tragedy, so I would urge you all to think compassionately,” Nirenberg said.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was Texas’s governor, Greg Abbott, who quickly pointed at Joe Biden and attributed the deaths to the president’s immigration policies, which opened up legal pathways for immigrants that his predecessor Donald Trump had tried to close off.
“These deaths are on Biden,” Abbott wrote. “They are a result of his deadly open border policies. They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law.”
The remark drew a sharp rebuke from Biden’s press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, who said Abbott and other Republicans were playing politics at an inappropriate time.
“The fact of the matter is [that] the border is closed,” Jean-Pierre said. If the border were not closed, people would not be risking everything to try to sneak across, she argued.
Biden himself issued a statement pledging to “continue to do everything possible" to stop” human smugglers who sneak people into the US without permission in exchange for pay, preying on aspiring migrants who sometimes don’t survive the trek into the country.
“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’s statement said.
The president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said at least 22 people from his country were among the dead in what is thought to be one of the worst migrant disasters in the US. He said their deaths resulted from poverty and desperation, expressed condolences to the families left grieving after Monday’s grim findings, and promised his government’s help in repatriating their loved ones’ bodies.
Meanwhile, the Texas gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke said the nation needed to take steps to “dismantle human smuggling rings”. Authorities suspect the dead – from Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala – were being smuggled across the border by human traffickers for hire, colloquially known as coyotes.
“We need urgent action – dismantle human smuggling rings and replace them with expanded avenues for legal migration that reflect our values and meet our country’s needs,” he tweeted on Monday.
The homeland security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, whose department leads agencies investigating the deaths in the trailer, said the Biden administration was already taking some of the steps O’Rourke mentioned.
“Human smugglers are callous individuals who have no regard for the vulnerable people they exploit and endanger in order to make a profit,” Mayorkas said on Twitter. “We will work alongside our partners to hold those responsible for this tragedy accountable and continue to take action to disrupt smuggling networks.”
Pope Francis, whose Roman Catholic church enjoys immense support in Latin America, lamented the deaths near San Antonio and 23 others on Friday at the border between Spain and Morocco.
“I sorrowfully heard the news of the tragedy of the migrants in Texas and Melilla,” he said on Twitter. “Let us pray together for these brothers and sisters who died following their hope of a better life; and for ourselves, may the Lord might open our hearts so these misfortunes never happen again.”