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Smugglers and shelters — San Antonio, hub city for US immigration

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A migrant sits on a bed at a shelter in San Antonio, Texas on June 29, 2022./AFP
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Jul 01, 2022 - 03:08 AM

SAN ANTONIO — Dozens of migrants wait in line outside a shelter in San Antonio, most of them young men but also women and children, hoping for a hot meal and a roof over their head.

Every year thousands like them pass through this Texas city on the frontline of America’s struggle to cope with waves of migrants seeking to escape poverty and violence and find a better life in the United States.

The city is 240 kilometers (150 miles) from the border with Mexico and is often the first stop on an odyssey across the country as migrants fight to remain in America and settle down to a new life.

This week it was also the scene of a horrific discovery that laid bare the price that some pay — 53 people died after being left inside a big-rig truck abandoned next to train tracks and junk yards in San Antonio.

One of those waiting outside the shelter after putting up with hours in the rain is Edwin Sanchez, 42, a Venezuelan who left home on May 12 and has been in San Antonio for five days.

He hopes to make it soon to New York, where he says an acquaintance has promised him a job.

“We are hoping to get a little help,” Sanchez said.

He got through a border crossing despite Title 42, a Covid-era rule still in place under which people arriving at the border can be turned back without being able to apply for asylum.

The policy is applied unevenly: it is rarely used against people from Venezuela or Cuba, which have leftist governments seen by US officials as authoritarian, but it is often applied against Mexicans and Central Americans.

No matter how people get in, if they traveled through northeast Mexico there is a good chance they stop off in San Antonio.

‘At the crossroads’

The city has an airport, a bus station and is well connected to the rest of the country, said Roger Enriquez, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas, San Antonio.

“It is at the crossroads of two major highways: the I-10, which links California to Florida, and the I-35, which runs from the southern border in Laredo all the way to Minnesota in the north. It is the perfect place to stop over,” said Enriquez.

But the location also suits people-smugglers who take advantage of the fact that most of the population of San Antonio is Latino, so migrants being brought in illegally can blend in, said Enriquez.

As many arrive with little but the clothes on their back, charities try to help them.

One of them is Corazon (Heart) Ministries, which runs the night shelter that Edwin Sanchez was waiting to enter.

It opens every evening at 7:00 pm and closes the next day at 8:00 am, offering people dinner and a place to sleep, said director Monica Sosa.

As she speaks, shortly before opening time, volunteers set up cots with the red logo of the American Red Cross.

The shelter supposedly has room for 150 people but there are always more to take care of, some times as many as 400. Many migrants end up sleeping on the floor or in a nearby park.

“Our resources are very limited. We need more support,” said Sosa.

A city of smugglers 

Austin Hernandez, a 20 year old Honduran, has been in San Antonio for four days and has not yet managed to land a bed in the shelter.

He says he wished he could get more help but does not lose hope of making it to the state capital Austin, which is only 130 kilometers away.

“The trip was very hard. I was robbed, I begged for food in the streets. I have endured cold, rain and slept in the rough,” Hernandez said of his trek.

He said he made the trip without the help of smugglers known as coyotes. But often, facing tight security at the border, migrants do put their lives in the hands of traffickers.

The discovery Monday of the abandoned tractor trailer in San Antonio highlighted that clandestine trips are highly lucrative for smugglers.

“It is estimated that the coyotes can charge from $8,000 to $10,000 per person, and they can put as many as 100 people in a truck. That’s a million dollars,” said Enriquez.

“I am surprised there are not more tragedies due the danger and the risks these people are taking.”

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