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San Antonio Organizer: U.S. Immigration Policy Is to Blame for Deaths of 53 in Smuggling Tragedy

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We go to San Antonio, where 53 migrants seeking refuge in the U.S. died earlier this week after being confined to a sweltering tractor-trailer. Human rights advocates blamed the tragedy on restrictive immigration policies like the Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as MPP or the “Remain in Mexico” program. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that President Biden has the power to end the Trump-era policy, which forced tens of thousands of asylum seekers to stay on the Mexican side of the border in unsafe conditions while their cases were resolved in the U.S. “Every single migration-related death is preventable by policy that actually focuses on welcome and care,” says Claudia Muñoz, co-executive director of Grassroots Leadership.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman.

The Supreme Court sided with the Biden administration on Thursday, saying the president has the power to end the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” program, formally known as MPP, or Migrant Protection Protocols. The ruling was 5 to 4, with Chief Justice Roberts and Brett Kavanaugh joining the court’s three liberal justices in the majority. In his majority opinion, Roberts wrote a lower court had overreached when it blocked Biden from rescinding the program last year.

Since the policy’s implementation in 2019, almost 70,000 asylum seekers were forced to wait in Mexico while their cases were resolved in U.S. courts, a process that could take months or years. Thousands enrolled in MPP reported being kidnapped, raped, tortured or left without shelter while they waited in Mexico.

The ruling comes just days after 53 people seeking refuge in the United States died after being confined in a sweltering tractor-trailer in San Antonio, Texas. Four people have been arrested in connection with the tragedy, including the alleged driver of the truck.

We go now to San Antonio, where we’re joined by Claudia Muñoz, co-executive director of Grassroots Leadership, an organization dedicated to ending mass incarceration, deportation, criminalization and prison profiteering. She recently wrote an op-ed for Truthout headlined “US Immigration Policy Is to Blame for the Horrific Mass Death in San Antonio.”

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. If you could start, Claudia, by talking about the Supreme Court decision and then how it relates to the horror that has been exposed in San Antonio, where you are?

CLAUDIA MUÑOZ: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me today.

I think, in terms of the MPP decision, it’s certainly a welcome decision for us. We know it’s not done; it has to go back to the 5th Circuit, the lower court that initially made the decision. And then we still have other programs, such as Title 42, that have a similar impact on migration and in people’s lives, right?

And I think, for us, what we are seeing is that all of these policies, at the end of the day, force people into violent and deadly pathways of migration, because as long as we have these policies that are really based on control and exclusion, people will not go to the bridge, knowing they will be turned away. And so, with both Title 42 still existing — it’s great that MPP, you know, seemingly will be done away with soon, but Title 42 was just funded for another six months by Congress, including Democrats —

AMY GOODMAN: And again, Title 42 is the Trump pandemic policy of just citing the pandemic as a reason to keep people out of the United States.

CLAUDIA MUÑOZ: Yes. Yes, absolutely. So, again, as long as these exclusionary policies exist, people will find other ways to migrate that are much more violent and deadly, such as what happened in San Antonio on Monday.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a clip of an LGBTQ+ asylum seeker from Honduras who was placed in the “Remain in Mexico” program. They were forced to wait in the border city of Matamoros for two-and-a-half years. This is what they said.

GLORIA: [translated] I slept by the river, under some tents. I saw how narcos or murderers, people of that sort — they were just called ”la maña” — they would go and find women to rape them, children. I saw people dying. When you don’t pay a kidnapper or you don’t pay a so-called rent, what happens is they pour acid on you. So, if I’m escaping from a country where I will be killed, and then they sent me to another country where I will also be killed for any reason, they are not helping us.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s video from Families Belong Together, Gloria from Honduras. Claudia Muñoz, OK, so, the court says you can end MPP. But how will the Biden administration do it?

CLAUDIA MUÑOZ: Well, we’re not sure. I think we’re still waiting to see the exact way, right? We know that the decision has to go back to the lower court, and then another decision has to be made.

And so, I think, you know, for us, seeing all of the death around us, we are asking that some bold action is taken, so that we can prevent more deaths from happening, which I will say every single migration-related death is preventable by policy that actually focuses on welcome and care. And so we’re hoping that whatever is decided by the administration is actually based on those values, and not on exclusion and control.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about how U.S. policy relates to the horror of human smuggling that we have seen unfold outside of San Antonio, with at this point 53 migrants dead in the back of a sweltering tractor-trailer truck. We believe at least four children and about 12 others are in hospital. The horror we’ve heard reports of — it’s all just sort of leaking out right now — that steak seasoning was put over the people to disguise the smell. I want to turn Karena Caballero, the mother of 23-year-old Alejandro Andino and 18-year-old Fernando Redondo Caballero, two Honduran asylum seekers who were among the dead in the San Antonio tragedy.

KARENA CABALLERO: [translated] If it was as in other countries, where we could ask for a law or an organization to fight for the youth’s future, is that possible? No, it isn’t. We’re not in a country that is open to these kinds of things. But if I had to demand something, please, Honduras government, fight for this country’s youth.

AMY GOODMAN: Karena Caballero’s daughter-in-law, Margie Tamara, was also among the victims. Talk about what you understand took place and how this relates to U.S. policy, Claudia.

CLAUDIA MUÑOZ: Absolutely. So, we know that this is not a tragedy that just happened. This was done to these human beings by, really, the borders and those in power who uphold them and fund them every single year. And so, what we have seen is absolutely devastating. We know it’s preventable. Again, we know that as long as people are being turned away from the bridge, they will find other paths. Particularly in Texas, migration has been extremely violent, has been made to be extremely violent by state policy and, really, by the complicity and enabling of the Biden administration in stopping all of the states that are taking immigration into their own hands, you know, with the idea that deterrence-based policies will keep people away. We know that’s not going to happen, particularly as conditions, as this mother is mentioning, global conditions are worsening for people.

And so, as long as we have all of these state, local and federal policies in place, people will continue to die, which we call preventable deaths. This should not be happening. What’s happening again in Texas and other places is absolutely devastating. And these people, all of them, should be here. There are groups that are asking that visas for trafficking, for victims of crime, are provided to the families, to the survivors, and that protection from deportation and relief is provided to the families of those whose lives were taken, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the anti-immigrant Texas policies, such as Operation Lone Star, that are also contributing to asylum seekers dying? I mean, it’s amazing, Operation Lone Star, the full militarization of the southern U.S. border. They were part of the group in Uvalde — right? — who did not move in to save the 19 children, fourth graders, and their two [teachers], even as they stood in the hallway. But yet, Operation Lone Star, the militarization is massive there. Explain what it means for migrants.

CLAUDIA MUÑOZ: Absolutely. So, in March of last year, Governor Abbott and a group of 25 other governors around the country organized themselves what they called an effort to actually secure the southern border. And this operation, it’s a $4 billion operation, which effectively deploys even more law enforcement than National Guard members, not just from Texas but from other states, as well.

What they are using is that they are using an emergency order to create an enhanced trespassing charge. Up to date, they have charged over 3,000 people. And some of them have been in a state prison, that was cleared out to detain these migrants, for up to a year. I mean, there are so many constitutional violations in terms of conditions, access to counsel, bail. I can’t even begin to fully cover it. But what’s happening is that the federal government has completely let Texas get away with this, which has emboldened —

AMY GOODMAN: Claudia, before we go, I want to quickly ask you about the efforts that are being made right now, immigrant rights activists demanding to protect the survivors of this human smuggling tragedy from deportation. Do you know how they will be protected, if they will be granted — allowed to be in this country?

CLAUDIA MUÑOZ: Yes. So, what we know is that DHS, the Department of Homeland Security, took over the investigation, which, of course, raises red flags for what will happen to the survivors and to the families of those whose lives were taken away. I know that groups like San Antonio Stands are asking both the federal government and local governments to certify new visas, trafficking visas, and also promise and ensure that people are not deported who are both collaborating with the investigation but also the families of those whose lives were taken away. And so, all efforts are being made to protect those lives, as well as efforts to prevent this from happening ever again.

AMY GOODMAN: Claudia, I want to thank you for being with us, co-executive director of Grassroots Leadership. We’ll link to your piece in Truthout, “US Immigration Policy Is to Blame for the Horrific Mass Death in San Antonio.”

Coming up, we speak to a Dutch doctor who’s been providing medication abortions around the world, and increasingly right here in the United States. Back in 20 seconds.

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