SAN ANTONIO — A day after dozens of people were found dead in the back of a tractor-trailer in the heat of the scorching Texas sun, the authorities were working to identify the victims and untangle one of the deadliest border-crossing attempts in years.
The bodies of at least 46 people believed to be migrants were found dead on Monday, in and around an abandoned tractor-trailer on the outskirts of San Antonio, officials said. At least 16 others, including children, were taken to hospitals alive but suffering from heat exhaustion and apparent dehydration.
Officials did not identify a cause of death, but suggested that extreme heat most likely contributed. The truck did not have air-conditioning, officials said, and the temperature touched 101 degrees in San Antonio on Monday. The city’s fire chief, Charles Hood, said the people who were transported to hospitals were “hot to the touch.”
Three people have been taken into custody, the police said. It was not yet known if the driver, whom the police were searching for after the truck was abandoned near railroad tracks and auto salvage yards southwest of downtown, was among those detained.
An employee from a nearby business discovered the truck around 6 p.m. after hearing a cry for help, William McManus, the chief of the San Antonio Police Department, said on Monday. The worker found the doors of the trailer partly open, with several bodies inside and at least one outside, he said.
Border crossings are always dangerous, with hundreds of migrants often packed into vehicles, sometimes without water, fresh air or food. Many have been killed in crashes, while others have overheated.
The Department of Homeland Security was expected to take over the investigation. Agents from Homeland Security Investigations, a unit specialized in smuggling, were collecting evidence inside the trailer on Monday, officials said.
It was one of the worst episodes of migrant deaths in the United States in recent years, coming as state officials have braced for a new surge in illegal crossings. Federal officials have recorded a record number across the southern border for this point in the year, with more than 44,000 last month just in the area around Del Rio and Eagle Pass, the border closest to San Antonio, which is about 150 miles away.
In May, agents apprehended a record high of more than 239,000 migrants along the entire border.
All of the victims on Monday were believed to have crossed into the United States illegally from Mexico.
Immigrants making their way to places across the United States often pass through San Antonio, as tens of thousands have done in recent months, according to immigrant advocates.
“The plight of migrants seeking refuge is always a humanitarian crisis,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg of San Antonio told reporters late Monday. “But tonight we are dealing with a horrific human tragedy.”
The numbers of illegal crossings have increased in part because of a policy put in place in March 2020, known as Title 42, that has allowed border agents to swiftly expel most migrants without giving them a chance to apply for asylum. Enacted as a pandemic safety measure, it has resulted in more migrants being returned to Mexico or flown back to their home countries.
But it has had the unintended effect of encouraging people to make multiple attempts to illegally enter the country, as those detained in the United States are returned without facing criminal penalties. About three out of 10 adults trying to cross have done it more than once, and some of them have tried as many as 10 times, officials say.
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