SAN ANTONIO — The bodies of at least 46 people believed to be migrants who crossed into the United States from Mexico were found dead on Monday in and around a tractor-trailer that had been abandoned on the outskirts of San Antonio, state and city officials said .
At least 16 others, including children, were taken to local hospitals alive but suffering from heat exhaustion and apparent dehydration, city officials said during a news conference at the scene of what appeared to be one of the worst episodes of migrant death in the United States in recent years.
“The plight of migrants seeking refuge is always a humanitarian crisis,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg of San Antonio told reporters late Monday. “But tonight we are dealing with a horrific human tragedy.”
The chief of the San Antonio Police Department, William McManus, said three people had been taken into custody. Earlier in the day, officers had been searching for the driver of the vehicle, who appeared to have abandoned the truck sometime before it was discovered in a remote area near railroad tracks and auto salvage yards southwest of downtown. Chief McManus did not say if the driver was among those detained.
The truck was discovered by a worker from a nearby business who “heard a cry for help and came out to investigate,” said Chief McManus, adding that the worker had found the doors of the trailer partially open and found a number of bodies inside.
Most of the bodies, which included men and women, were found inside of the truck at around 6 pm, though at least one was outside of the vehicle. The fire chief, Charles Hood, said the people who were transported to hospitals were “hot to the touch” and appeared to be suffering from “heat stroke, heat exhaustion.” The truck, though designed to be refrigerated, had “no visible, working A/C unit,” he said.
State officials in Texas, already managing record levels of migrant crossings from Mexico, have been bracing for a new surge this spring and summer. All of the victims were believed to have crossed into the United States illegally and been brought north. The closest border crossing is roughly 140 miles away.
“These deaths are on Biden,” Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, said in a short statement on Twitter† “They are a result of his deadly open border policies. They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law.”
Officials did not say how the people had died, but suggested that the extreme heat had been a cause. San Antonio and other cities across Texas have been experiencing heat in June that is at or near record levels. The temperature on Monday in the city had topped 100 degrees.
“Imagine being abandoned inside an 18-wheeler left to die,” Representative Tony Gonzales, whose congressional district stretches from the outskirts of San Antonio to the border, wrote on Twitter. “Will @AliMayorkas even mention their names?” he added, referring to Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of homeland security.
A spokesman for the Texas state police referred questions to the San Antonio Police Department, which did not respond to requests for comment. The Department of Homeland Security, was expected to take over the investigation.
The federal agency said in a statement that it was working with state and local authorities to investigate the deaths. Agents from Homeland Security Investigations, a unit specialized in smuggling, was collecting evidence inside the trailer, officials said.
San Antonio is a major transit point for migrants making their way from Texas to places across the United States. Tens of thousands of migrants have passed through the city in recent months, according to immigrant advocates.
For more than a year, Mr. Abbott has poured billions of dollars in state funding into increasing the presence of the Texas State Police and National Guard soldiers at the border. But the effort has been unable to stop the flow of migrants crossing from Mexico either to seek asylum or, in other cases, to evade the authorities and enter the country illegally.
Earlier on Monday, Mr. Abbott had legs touting his government’s efforts on Twitter, posting statistics on the number of migrants apprehended. mr. Abbott’s office did not immediately comment on the deaths near San Antonio before the governor returned to Twitter to confirm the deaths and attack President Biden, a Democrat, whom Mr. Abbott has sought to blame for the large number of arriving migrants.
Ruby Chavez, 53, a housewife who lives about a mile away from where the truck was found, heard about the discovery on television, then saw a helicopter churning overhead. She came to the scene with her husband, Ruben, to pray.
The area was a location known to locals as a “drop-off spot” for migrants, the couple said.
“You can tell they just get here. We see them with backpacks or asking for food or money,” Ms. Chavez said. “It’s sad. And now I’m hearing there are kids.”
Her husband added: “They know this area. They jump off the train and get picked up.”
Dozens of police officers and fire officials massed around the scene along Quintana Road, where the truck was found, a road sandwiched between train tracks and auto salvage yards that has a rural feel despite being inside the city limits. Several farms are nearby.
In recent days, law enforcement officials along the border and in nearby counties have expressed concern at the number of arriving migrants in Texas, which has long been one of the most heavily trafficked borders for migrants. Federal officials have recorded a record number of illegal crossings across the southern border for this point in the year, with more than 44,000 recorded last month just in the area around Del Rio and Eagle Pass, the border city closest to San Antonio.
Smugglers often transport large numbers of migrants in trailers, vans or SUVs after meeting them in remote areas once they have managed to enter the United States.
One of the deadliest smuggling cases occurred in 2003, when sheriff’s deputies discovered the bodies of 17 migrants, including a 7-year-old boy, inside an overheated trailer in Victoria, a city in southern Texas. When officials located the trailer at a truck stop, they found that the migrants trapped inside had attempted to punch air holes out so they could breathe. Another migrant later died at a hospital.
In 2017, 10 men died in San Antonio after riding in a tractor-trailer packed with as many as 200 migrants who did not have food, water or fresh air for hours. Nearly 30 other people were hospitalized, and the driver was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the smuggling operation.
Crashes near the border are also common, sometimes during chases by law enforcement.
In 2012, a Ford pickup crammed with more than 20 undocumented migrants struck two trees in South Texas, killing 15 people. In March 2021, 13 people were killed in a remote stretch of Southern California when a crammed Ford Expedition drove into the path of a tractor-trailer. And last August, at least 10 people died and 20 others were injured after a van crashed in South Texas.
In May, agents apprehended more than 239,000 migrants along the border, an all-time high, including people who had already attempted to enter before. The United States has been carrying out a public health emergency policy, known as Title 42, that has resulted in about half of the migrants being returned to Mexico or flown back to their home countries.
However, ever-larger numbers of migrants from India, Russia, Senegal and elsewhere cannot be expeditiously removed because their countries will not accept them, and they are being allowed to enter the United States. At the border, they are placed in deportation proceedings and receive notices to appear in court or report to immigration authorities in the interior of the country.
“This horrible tragedy is a reminder that we need a safe, orderly way for people to claim asylum,” said Representative Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, a Democrat. “The continued use of Title 42 has made desperate people even more desperate.”
The policy has also given migrants an incentive to make repeated attempts to cross the border if they do not succeed on their first try, immigration analysts say, one factor in the escalating number of crossings over the past year.
In addition to the single adults who typically make such crossings, thousands of families and children have been arriving daily from Central America, driven by violence, natural disasters and the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.
There has also been a spike in the number of single adults from Mexico and Central America seeking entry into the United States, often after treacherous routes to evade detection by authorities.
It was not clear where the people who were found on Monday had come from.
Miriam Jordan and Eliza Fawcett contributed reporting.