Fire & Ice

Immigrants Left Brain Dead in San Antonio May Be Thrown Out of U.S.

Undocumented immigrants who survived asphyxiation and heatstroke in the back of a smuggler’s truck now face a new threat: deportation.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

After the killing heat came ICE.

The 10 undocumented migrants who died after being locked in an unrefrigerated refrigerator truck in sweltering Texas on Sunday were beyond all cares, but the survivors who now face immigration authorities include a number who may be left permanently disabled.

“With heatstrokes or heat injuries, a lot of them are going to have some irreversible brain damage,” said San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood.

In the past, hospitals in San Antonio and across the country have on occasion engaged in “medical repatriations,” arranging for undocumented immigrants in need of costly long-term care to be returned to their home countries. ICE has largely let the particular institution decide what to do with disabled undocumented migrants who pose no conceivable threat to public safety.

“A case-by-case basis,” an ICE official said on Monday.

When it comes to any disabled survivors from the truck horror in San Antonio, acting ICE director Thomas Homan may harbor a certain sympathy, despite his remark last month that undocumented immigrants “should be afraid” of ICE just as tax cheats should be afraid of the IRS—as if deportation and an audit were comparable threats.

As he noted in a statement regarding Sunday’s horror in San Antonio, Homan had investigated a similar tragedy 14 years ago.

“I personally worked on a tragic tractor-trailer case in Victoria, Texas, in 2003 in which 19 people were killed as a result of the smugglers’ total indifference to the safety of those smuggled and to the law," Homan said.

In fact, Homan was the lead ICE investigator in the earlier deaths, which also involved an unrefrigerated refrigerator truck. In response to those who suggested he has been overzealous in his efforts to end human smuggling, Homan once said: “People weren’t standing with me in Victoria, Texas, in the back of a tractor trailer with 19 dead aliens, including a 5-year-old child lying dead under his father that suffocated in the back of this tractor trailer by these smuggling organizations.”

In 2003, Homan and his fellow investigators ended up arresting not just the truck driver, but 13 members of the smuggling ring. The witnesses included one of the survivors from the back of the truck, Enrique Ortega.

On the witness stand in Houston federal court, Ortega offered a harrowing account of what it was like to be locked in super-heated darkness filled with dying cries for help and the sounds of people desperately pounding and clawing at the inside of the trailer.

Ortega said that he is Mexican and had previously lived illegally in America, but had been deported after being arrested for drinking a beer while driving. He had gone in 2003 to the Mexican city of Matamoros, just across the Rio Grande River from Brownsville, Texas.

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“I looked for a smuggler, coyote,” he testified.

At the bus station, Ortega agreed to pay a smuggler $2,000 to get him to Houston. One of the smuggler’s underlings escorted Ortega and another migrant across the river. They then walked two and a half hours through the brush to where the smuggler and his wife picked them up in vehicle and drove them to a “stash house.”

The following day, the smuggler took Ortega and his traveling companion to a second house, where there were some 70 other migrants. They were all transported from there to a load site, where they joined still more migrants, for a total of around 100. A tractor trailer rolled up some 40 minutes later.

“Somebody opened the doors and said, ‘Get on,’” Ortega testified.

Ortega might have unknowingly saved his own life by hesitating.

“I stayed to the very end, but then I did get on,” he told the court.

The doors to the back of the trailer slammed shut.

“It was dark,” Ortega recalled.

After five minutes, the truck began to move. Another five or maybe 10 minutes later, he began to feel the heat. It quickly became unbearable.

Somebody began to pull on a piece of plywood that covered the back of one of the taillights. Ortega and several other people began working on the plywood covering a taillight on the other side.

“I started by scratching, scratching, scratching, and scratching,” he said. “I scratched away until I was able to get one finger through. Then I kept working at it until I got three fingers in there. Once I could get three fingers in, I just pulled on that plywood.”

Others helped him and the lights on both sides were uncovered.

“We just broke those out with our hands by punching them out,” he said.

He explained, “Because it was hot, because you couldn’t breathe, because we wanted to call attention so that… they would open for us.”

“Are people inside the trailer making noise at this point?” the prosecutor asked.

“They were screaming,” Ortega answered. “‘Open the door. Open the door,’ but a lot louder.”

The cries were joined by the booming of people pounding on the metal insides of what was quickly becoming a death trap.

“They were beating the trailer,” he said.

They began pushing things out through the holes with the hope somebody would notice.

“Shirts, T-shirts, caps,” Ortega reported.

The truck came to a checkpoint that they had been told they would encounter. They had been warned be quiet, but they now made all the noise they could.

“Were you more concerned about getting caught or arrested or getting out of the trailer?” the prosecutor asked.

“Getting out of the trailer,” Ortega answered.

“Did you care at that point if you got arrested?”


“And why not?”

“Because I wanted to get out of the trailer. I didn’t want to die inside the trailer.”

The truck rolled on past the checkpoint, but later stopped at what Ortega would learn was a service station. Somebody pushed a couple of small bottles of water in through one of the holes in the back.

“Did you get any water”” the prosecutor asked.

“No,” Ortega said.

“Were people still making noise at this point?”

“Yes. They were screaming, ‘Open the door. Open the door,’ and hitting the trailer with their hands.”

The doors stayed closed. The truck began rolling again. The small hole in the back let in little air and did nothing to lessen the heat. The trailer grew even hotter.

Migrants became so thirsty that they began sucking the sweat from their clothing. The holes did let in just enough light or Ortega to see that a number of people had collapsed.

“It was dark, but we saw there were bodies lying on the floor,” he testified.

Ortega felt dizzy, near to fainting, to joining the bodies on the floor. The little bit of air let in by the holes where stood a result of getting in at the very end may have made the difference. He was still upright and conscious when the truck stopped again.

“I heard voices outside,” Ortega reported.

He had trouble making out the words with the people around him still screaming.

“I told them to lower their voices down,” he recalled.

He spoke in English through one of the holes.

“I said, ‘Excuse me. Excuse me,” he testified.

The doors finally opened. Ortega staggered out and saw some water at a ranch across the road.

“I went over to drink water,” he said.

He began walking along the edge of the road.

“Did you know where you were going?” the prosecutor asked.

“No,” Ortega replied.

“Did you ultimately get picked up by the police?”


“At some point did you talk to the police and tell them what had happened?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Has anyone from the government promised you that you’ll be allowed to stay in this country once your service as a witness in this case is over?”


All 14 defendants were convicted and sentenced to heavy time. The driver, Tyrone Williams, got a life sentence, later reduced to 33 years.

In the aftermath of the trial, Ortega applied for “U Nonimmigrant” status, which allows an undocumented alien to stay in the country if he or she has been a victim of one of a host of violent crimes that include human trafficking and “possesses credible and reliable information establishing that he or she has knowledge of the of the details concerning the qualifying criminal activity… and has been helpful, is being helpful, or is likely to be helpful to a certifying agency in the investigation or prosecution.”

Ortega certainly seemed to qualify, but there was that arrest for driving with a beer, and he had returned after being deported. His application was denied.

“I was not successful,” his attorney, Ignacio Pinto-Leon, told The Daily Beast.

If Ortega has since returned to the United States, he almost certainly knew better than to make the journey in the back of a tractor trailer. Many others have continued to do so. A trailer with 44 migrants was discovered on June 19 in Laredo, where a trailer with 72 people was discovered on July 7. A trailer was discovered on July 8 at the same checkpoint on Interstate 35 that failed to stop the truck bearing Ortega and the others in 2003.

Just after midnight on Sunday, a San Antonio police officer answered a call for help at Thermo King refrigerator truck parked outside a Wal-Mart. Eight bodies were found inside, their skin hot to the touch even in death.

Two more people later died at the hospital. The condition of at least 15 others was described as “life threatening.”

One of the dozens of survivors told ICE agents that he had agreed to pay coyotes $5,500 to be smuggled across the border and transported to San Antonio. This was a steep price hike from the standard $2,000 in 2003. The survivor reported to the agents that the smugglers had told him some of the money would go toward protection by people affiliated with the Zetas drug cartel. An added surcharge was for crossing the river by raft with 28 other immigrants in three trips.

“Once across, they walked until the next day,” the resulting criminal complaint says.

At 9 a.m., the survivors and the others were picked up by a silver Chevrolet Silverado, just as Olson had been picked up by his coyote in 2003. They were taken directly to the Thermo King, which already had 70 people inside.

“[The survivor] was told to get inside and he would be transported later that evening,” the complaint says. “The smuggler closed the door and the interior of the trailer was pitch black and it was already hot inside… They were not provided with any water or food.”

The complaint adds, “People inside were making noise to get someone’s attention but nobody ever came.”

Around 9 p.m., a man opened the doors and told the migrants that they would be leaving soon. They were given tape various colors to identify them to the particular smugglers who would be waiting when they reached their destination.

“The man also told them that the trailer had refrigeration and not to worry about the trip,” the complaint says.

The refrigeration might have been working at first. The complaint goes on, “During the first hour of transportation, everyone seemed to be OK.”

But if so, it either gave out or was turned off. The driver in the 2003 case had not used the refrigeration because he figured that would save him a gallon of fuel an hour.

“Later, people started having trouble breathing and some started to pass out,” the complaint reports. “People began hitting the trailer walls and making noise to get the driver's attention. The driver never stopped. People had a hole in the trailer wall to provide some ventilation and they started taking turns breathing from the hole."

When the truck stopped in San Antonio, one of the migrants managed to get out. He staggered up to somebody and asked for water. The person got him some and called the police while a series of black SUVs came to pick up some of the survivors, apparently in accordance with the colored tape.

The replay of the 2003 journey complete with screams and pounding ended with 10 people dead. The driver, James Madison, was arrested and was arraigned in San Antonio federal court on Monday. He pleaded not guilty. Meanwhile, worried people have been calling the Mexican consulate in San Antonio to say a loved one had been in transit to America. Consulate representatives were at seven local hospitals, seeking to determine the nationality and identity of the survivors and connect them with their families.

“Interviewing all people who can speak,” a spokeswoman said.

The spokeswoman said there have been medical repatriations from San Antonio hospitals in the past, but there is no talk of that happening in this case. One of the city’s two trauma centers, San Antonio Military Medical Center, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for the other trauma center, University Hospital, said in an email, “We don't have a policy on repatriating undocumented immigrants. “

At least in this case there were no young children like the 5-year-old Homan saw in the back of that trailer in 2003. But Homan is by all accounts just as determined not to stop with the driver. He will keep pushing the investigation until he gets the whole ring, as he did that other time 14 years ago when killing heat was followed by ICE.