The cause of the collision between an SUV and a semitruck that left 13 dead in Holtville, California, on Tuesday morning is still a horrific mystery. But federal investigators are exploring a likely explanation for why the overloaded car sped through an intersection in the rural area: a case of human smuggling turned deadly.
Surveillance footage shows the 1997 Ford Expedition and another SUV loaded with people entering the U.S. through a breach in the border fence shortly before the crash. Ten victims were Mexican nationals; the other three were women from Guatemala. While consular officers keep working to confirm victims' names, special agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement began piecing together how 25 adults came to be crammed into a vehicle meant for no more than eight.
It's an all-too-familiar story, and one that has not become less common as the world fights a global pandemic and migrants south of the border wait to see the effects of immigration changes promised by the administration of President Joe Biden. Clandestine migration to the U.S. has accelerated through last fall and into the early weeks of the new administration, as poverty, crime and public health conditions across the border have grown more desperate.
"You've lost your source of income, whatever it is. People — especially in the informal economy, which are the ones that drive local economies, as we know — you've lost those sources of income. Their own relatives who could have afforded to support them are probably also broke," says Gabriella Sanchez, a migration researcher with the Danish Institute for International Studies.
"People who might not have thought about migrating, now are like, 'Well, at this point, I really don't have anything else to lose. Anything I could have lost, I already lost.'"
For the last year, the U.S. has used an obscure public health law to expel anyone caught trying to cross the border rather than formally deporting them. That keeps the federal government from having to detain migrants for days (and often months or years) after their arrival on the U.S. side of the border. But it also further incentivizes evading detection by the authorities, which is where the smugglers come in.
The crash occurred about 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border; United Farm Workers members said the victims weren't among the 6,000 farmworkers who commute from Mexico to tend crops in the Imperial Valley. The SUV's passengers ranged in age from 16 to 65, packed into a vehicle manufactured to carry a passenger weight of no more than 2,000 pounds. (All but the front seats of the Ford had been removed to create space.)
An ICE spokesperson told the Los Angeles Times, which has been the authoritative news source on the incident, that Homeland Security investigations agents "responded to the scene of today's fatal crash" and began their smuggling investigation. The surveillance footage showed a second SUV, which held 19 people, also crossing the border around the same time. It subsequently caught fire; the Holtville fire chief speculated to the Los Angeles Times that the combined weight of the passengers caused the vehicle to malfunction.
There are plenty of ways for migrants to be killed trying to come to the United States. People suffocate in locked tractor trailers, die of heat or cold in the Arizona desert, or drown off the California shore. Migrants die in crashes while being chased by the Border Patrol, a phenomenon that ProPublica and the Times investigated in 2019. Even when they're not being pursued — as they weren't in this case — vehicles overstuffed with people can be hard to steer and dangerous to drive, which may have been the case here.
When Sanchez first heard about the crash, she immediately recognized the hallmarks of a smuggling accident. The case "reminded me of when I lived in California, growing up," says Sanchez. "The trucks are packed, and then immigration coming over or chasing them."
The need to evade apprehension by border agents creates danger. That's part of the logic of deterrence — a logic that has guided U.S. border policy for decades. If the point of border security is to make it as difficult and unappealing as possible to enter the United States, the only possible routes will be the most dangerous ones, and the people who are willing to take them will be the most desperate.
For the last few years, national attention has focused on the relatively recent phenomenon of large numbers of children and families coming to the United States, mostly from Central America and mostly to seek asylum. There's a reason for that: The deterrence system was not built for families and children, so it didn't have the resources to address them.
The Biden administration is simultaneously trying to expand its capacity to keep unaccompanied children in custody (before releasing them to sponsors, usually relatives, in the U.S.) and trying to slowly unwind some of the policies imposed by the administration of President Donald Trump to expel families from U.S. soil as quickly as possible.
American policymakers can sometimes speak as if the most important factor in migration is U.S. government policy — or at least how welcoming the country is perceived to be. Biden officials take every opportunity to tell would-be migrants explicitly not to come; the new administration's critics (such as Trump immigration czar Stephen Miller) say that any loosening of immigration restrictions is encouraging a flood of new migrants. But the fact is that beyond U.S. borders, the rest of the world changes too, often in ways that make emigration seem not just appealing but necessary.
In the early months of the pandemic, it seemed that tight restrictions on international travel — including the Trump administration's mass-expulsion policy under the public health law — had all but frozen migration. But smugglers of drugs and people quickly rebounded, modifying their tactics, taking fewer trips with bigger loads, for example, to adapt to the pandemic while meeting demand. And the demand was very much there.
In Central America, the U.N.'s World Food Program estimates that hunger quadrupled from 2018 to 2020, and that was before the region was pummelled by hurricanes at the end of last year. Interviews with emigrants reveal that many of them have simply lost hope that things will ever get better in their home countries. In Mexico, meanwhile, things have gotten worse. The country's economy shrank by 8.5% in 2020; its national coronavirus czar was hospitalized last week with the virus, epitomizing a disastrous government response that's contributed to 186,000 Mexican deaths in the pandemic; and homicides in the first 11 months of 2020 had already passed the record for a full year (set in 2019).
While we don't know the whole story of migrants like the victims in Imperial County — or any other unknown victims of deadly migrations — it is possible they knew they could be killed on the journey and still felt that it was their best or only option.