Last Sunday, in one of the deadliest human smuggling cases in Texas history, authorities discovered the bodies of eight people in an overheated cab of a tractor-trailer in which 100 or more immigrants had been packed for transport to U.S. cities. The final death toll was 10. Dozens were hospitalized, some barely clinging to life.
That same day, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick blew the dog whistle, blaming the tragedy on liberal, “sanctuary” policies of cities such as Austin, Houston and San Antonio, where the truck was found in a Walmart parking lot.
In his Facebook statement, Patrick, R-Houston, wrote: “Sanctuary cities entice people to believe they can come to America and Texas and live outside the law. Sanctuary cities also enable human smugglers and cartels. Today, these people paid a terrible price and demonstrate why we need secure border and legal immigration reform so we can control who enters our country.”
Not only did the statement lack the compassion and respect for human life one would expect from a prominent state leader — especially one governing in Texas with a large Hispanic population and legacy — but it glossed over incontrovertible facts: Sanctuary cities don’t entice immigrants to come to the United States. Jobs do.
That is particularly true when people are emigrating from Mexico, China or other countries with too few opportunities to pull themselves up.
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In truth, the San Antonio tragedy exposes our wink-and-nod immigration system, which gives businesses and corporations a pass in luring immigrants to jobs Americans won’t do for low pay, while at the same time declaring war on illegal immigration and building walls to keep immigrants out of the country.
Consider that the U.S. civilian workforce included 8 million undocumented immigrants in 2014, according to the Washington-based Pew Research Center. That is a workforce built on the law of supply and demand – not sanctuary city policies.
The San Antonio incident gave Patrick and other Republican leaders, such as U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a chance to talk tough about border security. As a sovereign nation, the United States is well within its rights to protect and secure its borders — and we support that, as well as the enforcement of immigration laws.
But if border security alone were the answer, the problems of human smuggling and drug trafficking would be rare, given the plethora of resources thrown at security measures by the federal government — and Texas.
Since 1986, the federal government has spent an estimated $263 billion on immigration enforcement, which includes securing the nation’s southern border with Mexico, according to data from the nonpartisan American Immigration Council. Other think tanks have estimated annual federal spending on border security to be $18 billion to $19 billion.
In Texas, lawmakers again budgeted $800 million for state border security for the 2018-19 fiscal years, as it had done in the previous legislative session. And earlier this month, the Trump administration awarded Texas $2.3 million for border security.
Clearly, no amount of money will stop immigrants from entering the U.S. illegally — and that is evident from the life-threatening risks they take to come to America, such as paying thousands of dollars to smugglers to be packed like sardines in dangerously hot tractor-trailers for passage to jobs.
Last week’s tragedy bears a gruesome resemblance to another one in 2003, when 19 immigrants died from extreme heat and dehydration as they were smuggled from the border to Houston in the back of a trailer that reached 173 degrees inside. The driver, Tyrone Williams, was sentenced to 34 years in prison. The driver in the San Antonio incident, James M. Bradley Jr. of Clearwater, Fla., faces similar punishment.
What many GOP leaders don’t want to talk about is market factors. As long as there is demand for cheap labor, there will be willing suppliers to fill the demand, legally or illegally. And there is plenty of profit in the human smuggling trade. One survivor of the San Antonio tragedy promised smugglers more than $5,000 for his transport, which would have been paid off in wages earned in the U.S. Now, multiply that times 100.
Patrick signaled that the new Senate Bill 4 outlawing sanctuary cities as of Sept. 1 somehow will stem the flow of undocumented workers to the U.S. The law forces Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez to hold undocumented immigrants in jail by request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and encourages city police to check a person’s citizenship even in traffic stops.
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There is a better way forward. Even if an overhaul of our broken immigration system is off the table politically, President Trump and leaders of both parties could at least broaden guest-worker programs, even while continuing to tighten border security.
Such programs diminish profits and incentives for smugglers by allowing foreign workers to temporarily live and work in the country legally, typically with temporary visas. Currently, the U.S. has several programs for temporary workers, including employees for agricultural and seasonal work and skilled jobs.
Those programs are not without controversy, but they could be improved to address legitimate complaints that employers might be opting for foreign workers over Americans because they can pay foreign workers less. That is the discussion Congress and the president need to have instead of blaming liberal policies – or the victims – for an immigration system that is not working well for the nation’s security, job needs or its values respecting human rights.
The San Antonio tragedy is a symptom of a sick system, growing sicker every year. A cure can’t come too soon.