Tony Bokanian got a call on Monday afternoon from a neighbor who told him police were massed near his used auto parts business on the south-western edge of San Antonio in southern Texas.
Bokanian went out to look. That was when he saw the bodies – dozens of lifeless men, women and children heaped behind a lorry on an obscure backroad while swarms of emergency vehicles arrived.
It was the deadliest known human smuggling incident in the United States. Police found fifty people from México and Central America dead inside a truck trailer, locked and abandoned in the sweltering summer sun of South Texas.
Bokanian barely slept that night.
“I really felt it when I saw all the bodies on the ground,"Le dijo a The Guardian. “I’m pretty sure they’ve been on the road for months. Then they get here and die.”
Bokanian, 44, related to those people. Like many in this country, he grew up with dreams of coming to America. He recalled his own journey more than 20 años antes, out of Iran through Turkey and Greece to the US with a visa as a protected Christian minority.
The phenomenon of migration would always occur, él dijo, so governments should try to find an approach that avoids such gruesome tragedies.
“Give them visas,” he said at the edge of a police line around the crime scene where bodies were piled the day before. “It should be a better system so this doesn’t happen.”
He was among a small crowd of media, mourners and neighbors who gathered around the police tape despite the Texas heat on Tuesday morning. One woman, 65-year-old Angelita Olvera, approached with two colorful crosses. A mother of four and lifelong immigration activist from San Antonio, she had crafted them of dyed corn husks the night before when she had heard the news.
“These people shouldn’t have to go through that,” Olvera said through tears to a dozen US and Mexican TV news crews at the site, switching between English and Spanish. “This should be a free land for everyone.”
Like many in this originally Hispanic and formerly Mexican city of 1.5 millón, Olvera has family who moved here from Mexico, including without formal immigration processes. Aquí, the immigration debate hits close to the heart.
“I arrived like that,” said Guadalupe Flores, 46, in Spanish as she stood by watching the scene. “The whole process to get here is full of suffering.”
That was 20 hace años que. Today she lives nearby with her husband, James Bridges. The couple came out in the morning to pay their respects, just like they did in 2017 when a similar incident occurred in a nearby Walmart parking lot – 10 dead bodies found in a sweltering trailer, victims of abandonment by smugglers.
These incidents – along with the perpetually overwhelming tide of migrants to America’s southern border – have provoked conflicting calls across America’s political spectrum to either tighten or loosen rules on who is admitted to the country in order to solve the crisis.
Bridges, a 40-year-old plumber who was born on an overseas US military base, said he often hears complaints that immigrant workers will take jobs from US workers. But he said he doesn’t think US workers would want the strenuous, dangerous and low-paying jobs that immigrants work.
“It’s ridiculous," él dijo, crossing his thick tattooed arms. “Just open the border.”
But the border today is farther from open than it’s ever been before. The last 20 years saw the explosion of border security after the 9/11 Attacks. They saw Texas’ state-led militarization of the zone, the installation of Border Patrol checkpoints along interior highways and the campaign under president Donald Trump to build a wall across the 3,100 kilometer border.
Until 2020, asylum seekers were admitted to the US while their cases were heard. Special rules invoked by Trump during the Covid pandemic changed that, effectively shutting the border and forcing asylum seekers into squalid encampments. Despite campaign promises for immigration reform, president Joe Biden has been unable to roll back his predecessor’s policy hallmarks. Hoy dia, the US-Mexico border remains under historically restrictive migration rules.
“The phenomenon is not getting better,” said Roberto Marquez, who drove five hours from Dallas to set up his artwork at the site of the tragedy. “So our leaders should do something about it.”
He also entered this country without formal documentation as a teenager in the 1970s to pick crops. Times were very different. His father was a bracero – a legally permitted temporary worker from Mexico – and pathways to citizenship existed for people like Marquez.
Marquez, 60, found his American dream working construction and carpentry while raising four kids in Texas. En 2018 he became a full time activist and artist, traveling to scenes of migrant strife to show support and share his art.
Since then he’s traveled eight times to Mexico to accompany the migrant caravans that hike towards the US border.
“I consider the migrants my brothers,” he said in a black felt cowboy hat.
At the scene in San Antonio he displayed a three-panel mural he started in Del Rio, Texas, en 2021, when some 15,000 Haitians encamped at the border. They hoped for refuge in the US but they were mostly deported. Marquez’ mural, titled “Under the Bridge,” recalls Picasso’s “Guernica,” depicting the tragedy and desperation of refugees chased by mounted lawmen.
“I don’t think anybody wants an open border. We need to have control," él dijo. “But it is what the governments are doing that is creating this problem.”
The numbers of people arriving at the southern US border are near historic highs. The trends towards stricter policies and increased enforcement will only force migrants to take more drastic actions, especially as humanitarian conditions deteriorate in parts of Central America and Mexico.
Biden and the Democrats won the presidency on promises to reverse Trump’s hardline immigration policy. But despite the hopeful rhetoric, they haven’t achieved any substantial rollback of the previous administration’s approach, disappointing immigration advocates.
“Not just talk,” Marquez said. “We need action.”