Trafficking, 'monstrous form of modern slavery,' killed immigrants in Texas

Police officers in San Antonio work a crime scene at Walmart July 23 after eight people were found dead inside an 18-wheeler truck. The death toll reached 10 as of early July 24. (CNS/Ray Whitehouse, Reuters)

The mass murder of immigrants in San Antonio fills the soul with anger and frustration. The human heart can understand how, in the heat of passion, a person could strike out at another, even with deadly force. But, the heart recoils at the prospect of anyone so intent on the lucre offered by trafficking in human beings, that he loads people into the back of a trailer with no air conditioning, when the temperature in Texas is routinely in the 90s, so heedless of the risk to human life, so indifferent to human suffering.

I rely upon The Washington Post as my first stop for news in the morning, and found the two lead paragraphs distressingly wrong:

 "It began with a desperate request for water and a Walmart employee's suspicions about a tractor-trailer parked outside. That led officials on Sunday to discover at least 39 people packed into a sweltering trailer, several of them on the verge of death — their skin hot to the touch, their hearts dangerously racing — and eight men already dead. Another would die later at a hospital.

"Authorities think they found an immigrant smuggling operation just 2½ hours from the Mexican border that ended in what San Antonio Police Chief William McManus described as a 'horrific tragedy.' The victims, as young as 15, appeared to have been loaded like cargo into a trailer without working air conditioning during the height of the Texas summer. It was unknown how long they had been in the trailer or where their journey started, but 30 of the victims were taken to area hospitals and 17 had life-threatening injuries. Federal authorities said the victims were 'undocumented aliens.' "

"It" is a mass murder and it did not begin with a desperate request for water. It began with a broken immigration system that is navigated by heartless people who traffic in human beings, turning tractor-trailers into 21st century equivalents of slave ships.

"It" is not a horrific tragedy. Hurricane Katrina was a horrific tragedy. This was a mass murder.

The victims were not loaded "like" cargo. They were the cargo. It is not a metaphor, it is the reality. The dehumanization was complete.

The victims were not "undocumented aliens." They were from Mexico not from Mars. They had the document that mattered, the breath of life given to them by God, until that breath was extinguished by the inhumanity of the traffickers.

Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio issued a statement that was closer to the reality of what happened than the Washington Post story. "There are no words to convey the sadness, despair, and yes, even anger, we feel today at learning of the completely senseless deaths of nine people who died as human smuggling or trafficking victims from heat exhaustion and suffocation in San Antonio overnight," the archbishop began. He denounced "this monstrous form of modern slavery." He concluded powerfully:

"We now have a clarion call. Everyone — the churches, law enforcement, state and national elected officials, civic organizations, charitable groups — has to prioritize the immigration issue and truly work together in new ways which have eluded us in the past for common sense solutions. No more delays! No more victims!"

Jordan McMorrough, director of communications for the archdiocese, told me, "The reaction from the people of the community of San Antonio [to the statement] is that they found it very powerful. The archbishop has been speaking forcefully on this issue for years. People are sharing sentences from his statement on Facebook."

The fact that Garcia-Siller's statement was effective, as well as powerful, makes the weak statements from both the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops all the more inexplicable. A longtime observer of the Texas Catholic Conference pointed out that "the bishops of Texas have been in an intense battle with the Republican governor and legislators over SB4 [the new anti-sanctuary city law]." But, in addition to a reluctance to politicize the tragedy, the bishops were mindful that "the legislature is in special session and there are some bills on school choice and life issues that need to pass. … The timing required the bishops to be careful." To which I say: Nuts. Bishops need to walk and chew bubble gum at the same time, defend the church's teachings across the board and let the chips fall where they may. The statement, as written, could have been about the victims of a tornado.

The USCCB also issued a weak statement. "My brother bishops and I are heartbroken by the news coming from San Antonio regarding individuals found dead in a crowded and overheated tractor trailer," Bishop Joe Vasquez, chair of the Committee on Migration stated. "I also note our continued concern and prayers for the several other individuals identified, including school-aged children, who are reported to have life-threatening injuries. The loss of lives is tragic and avoidable. We condemn this terrible human exploitation that occurred and continues to happen in our country. In a moment such as this, we reflect upon the words of the Holy Father, Pope Francis, 'The defense of human beings knows no barriers: we are all united wanting to ensure a dignified life for every man, woman and child who is forced to abandon his or her own land.' We together mourn for the lives lost and offer our prayers for these individuals and their families."

Where in these latter statements is any acknowledgment that while the human traffickers bear the immediate responsibility for this horrible crime, our nation bears a mediate responsibility as well. Comprehensive immigration reform would not eliminate all smuggling, even the smuggling of human beings. But, it would help. And it was the cowardice of Republican leaders of the House four years ago that kept us from attaining the goal of comprehensive reform. Now, with President Trump ever willing to demonize immigrants as the perpetrators of crime, not the victims, even though entering the country without proper documents is not a criminal act, the likelihood of addressing the root causes of the mass murder that happened yesterday is more distant than ever.

Outrage. That is the appropriate response, not just to this mass murder, but to SB4 in Texas, to the failure of the Republican Party to even bring comprehensive immigration reform to a vote, to the rancid politics of hate and fear peddled by the president, and to the absence of leadership among the U.S. bishops' conference on this issue, which is so vital to the lives of millions of our fellow Catholics and so central to America's self-identity as a country of refuge. Outrage.

[Michael Sean Winters covers the nexus of religion and politics for NCR.]​

Editor's note: Sign up to receive emails, and we will notify you when Michael Sean Winters publishes new Distinctly Catholic columns.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here