Body bags lie at the scene where a tractor trailer with multiple dead bodies was discovered, in San Antonio, Texas

Migrant smuggling networks arise from the 'lack of legal pathways' into the US, expert says

Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a public policy professor at George Mason University in Virginia, spoke with The World's host Carol Hills about the networks behind the illegal smuggling operations.

The World

Body bags lie at the scene where a tractor trailer with multiple dead bodies was discovered in San Antonio on June 27, 2022.

Eric Gay/AP

On Monday, 50 people were found dead or dying inside a tractor trailer in San Antonio.

The temperature outside was nearly 100 degrees when they were discovered, and more than a dozen others saved from the trailer were hospitalized for heat-related illnesses, including heat exhaustion and dehydration.

Authorities say that this is among the deadliest-known tragedies connected to a human smuggling operation across the US-Mexico border. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said, "This is nothing short of a horrific human tragedy."

Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a public policy professor at George Mason University in Virginia, spoke with The World's host Carol Hills about the networks behind the illegal smuggling operations.

Related: More migrants are attempting to cross into the US via the perilous Rio Grande

Carol Hills: Fifty people have died as of this afternoon. Others have been hospitalized. This is not the first time a tragedy like this has happened. Can you put this into context for us?
Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera: Absolutely. This is not the first time that a tragedy like this has happened. Maybe the magnitude has shocked us. But in the year 2017, in the same city, 10 migrants died inside a trailer. And that is not the only event that we have had. Cars trying to cross the border when law enforcement have tried to stop them or there are other operations through the sea. Also, we have seen dozens, maybe hundreds, of people dying when they are trying to cross the Sonora-Arizona borders through the desert of Arizona. Or through Falfurrias County in Texas. They walk, they stay in stash houses in different cities of Texas or Mexico at the border, and they walk with the help of a guide, also part of the migrant smuggling operation. So, there are so many ways that migrants lose their lives in accidents or trying to escape from law enforcement.
Where are the smugglers themselves from?
That is an important question. We are talking about migrant smuggling networks. Therefore, the ones that operate at the border. In this case, we see are guides who can be Mexicans, Mexican Americans or people born and raised in the United States. But these migrant smuggling operations involve people from different parts of the world. Usually migrants, their initial part of the journey, connects them with people from their own countries. So, we're not just talking about people from Central America. We're talking about people from Brazil, from Haiti, from Cuba. And when we are talking about what is happening, we usually see that they are with a driver, but the drivers are just part of the network. So, it's difficult to say who is in charge of running these migrant smuggling operations. We know that, for example, in the year 2017, that the only person that was focused on as part of the investigation was a driver of the 18-wheeler. And the driver of the 18-wheeler was a US citizen. And that's something that does not matter so much, because, as I said, when we see that there's one person in charge of leading the migrants, we're just seeing a guide. We're not understanding the network, who is really leading that network. It's not a Central American migrant or a Central American citizen, most of the time when we are talking about operations at the border. When we talk about operations at the border, they live in Mexico or in the United States, but usually we are seeing just guides. Mexican, Mexican Americans or American citizens.
Democrats and Republicans in the US have already accused each other. They say each group's immigration policies have led to these circumstances. What connection do you see between US immigration policy and human smuggling at the border?
Well, the limitations with regards to legal migration, the lack of legal pathways when there is availability of jobs, that is what causes the growth and the existence of migrant smuggling networks that facilitate human mobility or the access of the people who are in need of the jobs in the United States. We're mainly talking about economic migrants when we are thinking about this. Of course, there are so many people that cannot live in their places of origin because of violence, because of a number of reasons that push them from their countries. They are in search of a better life and that life can be given in the United States.
Among migrants who are trying to reach the US, are there warnings and information that they pass along to one another about the risks of getting involved with smugglers and coyotes?
Absolutely. But they are making the choices based on cost and effectiveness. And even though they understand the risks, they understand the challenges, they understand the dangerous, they still want to make it, because they know once they cross the checkpoint, once they are in the United States, they're going to have a better life. So, they are willing to maybe die. It's a possibility. Many of them know that others die. Many others know that women are raped and women are even conscious about that.
You've studied this issue. How do we prevent these kinds of awful things from happening — of migrants dying in container trucks?
There are a number of causes of this phenomenon, pull and push factors. Bad policies, lack of legal pathways for regular migration. And at the same time, we have the root causes of migration: poverty, inequality, violence and, you know, a very unequal system overall in the global economic system. So, we need to address the different causes of these. The dismantling of migrant smuggling networks is also a very important investigation about who is doing this, who is taking advantage of these and the fixing of the immigration system in the developed world that is broken, the existence of jobs and these incentives.
What are short-term, specific things that could really prevent this kind of thing from happening?
Short term would be the dismantling of migrant smuggling networks, investigation and collaboration to deal with this and to prevent people from dealing with the migrant smugglers. But we're not going to solve this with law enforcement. We have to deal with the root causes of undocumented migration, have to deal with poverty, inequality, violence, all that has to be done at the same time. There's not only a way to deal with this to prevent this from happening because if law enforcement tries to dismantle these networks, there are going to be advances, but they are going to be changing their strategies. And if there is demand, there's going to be a supply.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. The Associated Press contributed to this report.