AUSTIN (KXAN) — News unfolded on Sunday about a deadly incident in San Antonio where 39 people were extricated from a trailer truck in a Walmart parking lot. As of Sunday evening, nine of those people were reported to have died and 20 were in serious or critical condition. The truck’s air conditioning was not working, so the people who survived were reported to have racing heart rates, heat stroke and dehydration.
“We are looking at a human trafficking crime here,” said San Antonio Police Chief William McManus at a press conference early Sunday morning.
As a researcher of trafficking at the University of Texas at Austin, Melissa I.M. Torres explained that this case is nothing new.
“It’s always awful to hear these things –and especially to this degree — but this happens every day,” Torres said. “Even though migration has decreased in recent years, the death toll of migrants has actually increased because the risks are harder for them, and I think it speaks to the need for us to fix an immigration system that causes people to think that having a better life or certain opportunities is worth dying over.”
She explained that the actual definition of trafficking can be easily confused.
“Human trafficking is the exploitation of a person by the means of force, fraud or coercion,” Torres said. “Here in the US we have the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which recognizes sex and labor trafficking, that means someone would have to be forced, defrauded or coerced into commercial sexual exploitation or labor exploitation.”
Smuggling, Torres explained, is a crime against the border where people have usually paid someone to cross the border or protect them.
“In cases of international trafficking where the victim is foreign born, there is usually some kind of smuggling process that has happened. But it’s not for certain. A lot of people are exploited and have come in here legally,” Torres said.
She worked on UT findings released in January which were the first phase of a statewide study in collaboration with the Office of the Texas Governor Greg Abbott, looking at how often trafficking occurred across the state. Their study found that there are an estimated 313,000 victims of human trafficking in Texas and 79,000 of those victims are minors. The researchers also estimated that $6.5 billion is spent annually on the lifetime costs of providing care to minors who are victims and survivors of sex trafficking.
Torres said that her most significant takeaways from this research was that labor trafficking is a growing issue in Texas, which in her view, doesn’t receive nearly enough attention in the state.
Approximately 234,000 of the victims of trafficking in Texas are victims of labor trafficking, the UT research found.
Most concerning to Torres is that victims of smuggling and trafficking are not aware of their rights and the legal process, which sometimes leads them into more abuse and exploitation.
“When it comes to migration and especially at the US-Mexico border — that’s the most internationally crossed border in the world,” Torres said, “when humanity is removed from that, these are the consequences of that type of thinking where the border takes precedence over people’s rights.”
State Rep. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, agreed that these dangerous incidents involving trafficking and smuggling extend far beyond this one case in San Antonio
“It’s tragic and it’s, unfortunately, it’s not new. This is something we’ve seen in evolution in the state,” Perry said Sunday.”As border security initiatives are shutting down some of the drug trafficking, they’re moving it over to human trafficking.”
The investigation into this incident is still underway. The driver of the truck has been identified as James Matthew Bradley, Jr., of Florida. He is in custody and expected to appear in court soon. The Department of Homeland Security, ICE, and various city, regional and national agencies are working on this case.