More than 100 organizations are urging the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to not deport survivors of the San Antonio tragedy that took the lives of 53 people, and allow them to apply for certain visas that are made available to victims of crime. “As we mourn the dead and work to ensure that a tragedy like this does not occur again, we write to draw attention to the fate of the survivors, many of whom remain in the hospital today,” they tell Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
The fears that officials may quickly deport survivors after such a traumatic and criminal ordeal are not unfounded. “In previous mass casualty incidents, victims and witnesses have ended up detained and deported within hours after being released from the hospital,” organizations said.
“For example, in August 2021, a survivor of a deadly car crash which killed 10 people in Encino, Texas, was deported just three days after the crash, while still wearing clothes streaked with blood,” organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, Haitian Bridge Alliance, Human Rights First, Refugees International, and Unitarian Universalist Service Committee said.
Immigration officials deported Marisol García Alcántara several weeks after she was shot in the head by Border Patrol as she was riding in a car as a passenger. While she survived the shooting, she was thrown into detention after just two days of hospitalization. Deported to Mexico, she’s filed a claim against the U.S. “I am looking for justice,” she told the Associated Press last year.
While four people have been charged in the San Antonio tragedy, organizations say they worry that survivors could be subjected to deportation after possibly being asked to testify in the case, “despite DHS’s existing victim protection memo. Expelling or deporting any survivor under those circumstances would simply compound the horrors that they had experienced in that overcrowded trailer.”
“That is why we are calling on the Department to ensure that survivors are paroled into the United States and provided with assistance in applying for a U or T visa or asylum, and exercise prosecutorial discretion to defer removal until those applications have been decided,” organizations continue. A number of the victims are reported to be indigenous people from Central America; groups ask survivors “be provided with Indigenous language interpretation services to assist with this process. But this cannot happen if they are rapidly expelled or deported.”
“I just spoke to DHS Secretary Mayorkas about the 46 people who died tonight in San Antonio, most likely the victims of merciless human smugglers,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro earlier this week, following the initial reports of the tragedy. “DHS (HSI) is working to alert their families, find everyone responsible for this crime and investigate exactly what happened.” When asked if survivors would get U-visas, the congressman responded that he would “press them on safe harbor.”
Officials have said it could possibly take weeks to identify all of the victims, though some are now publicly known. Some were young siblings, like 16-year-old Yovani Valencia Olivares and 19-year-old Jair Valencia Olivares. Two of the youngest were just 13, The Washington Post reported.
Pascual Melvin Guachiac Sipac and Juan Wilmer Tulul Tepaz, Indigenous cousins from Guatemala, started their journey just over two weeks ago. Pascual was seeking to reunite with his dad in the U.S., the report said. But on Wednesday, Pascual’s mother got a phone call telling her that her child was dead. “She still has his last message to her on her phone: ‘Mom, today they are taking me in a trailer,’” the report said.
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