The tractor-trailer truck at the center of a people-smuggling attempt that claimed the lives of 53 people had passed an inland U.S. border patrol checkpoint with migrants in the sweltering platform early in its journey, a U.S. official said Thursday.
The truck passed the checkpoint on Interstate 35, which is 26 miles northeast of the border town of Laredo, Texas.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation, said there were 73 people in the truck when it was spotted in San Antonio Monday, including the 53 who died. It was unclear whether agents stopped the driver for questioning at domestic control or whether the truck passed unhindered.
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The disclosure draws new attention to an old political question about whether the 110 or so checkpoints on inland roads along the Mexican and Canadian borders are effective enough to detect people in cars and trucks entering the United States illegally. They are generally within 100 miles (160 kilometers) of the border.
The Texas State Police also announced that they would operate their own inland checkpoints for semi-trucks on orders from Gov. Greg Abbott, who says the Biden administration’s efforts have been insufficient. It was unclear how many trucks they would stop.
Also Thursday, Homero Zamorano Jr., 45, the suspected driver of the trailer truck, made his first appearance in San Antonio federal court. During a hearing that lasted about five minutes, Zamorano, wearing a white T-shirt and gray sweatpants, said very little and gave yes-and-no answers to questions from US Judge Elizabeth Chestney about his rights and the charges against him him.
The judge appointed a federal defense attorney for Zamorano, as well as a second attorney, because the smuggling charge he faces involves a possible death sentence. She has scheduled a hearing next week to determine if he is eligible for bail.
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The US Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that Border Patrol agents can stop vehicles at domestic checkpoints for brief questioning without a warrant, even if there is no reason to believe they are illegally transporting people in the country. Still, the practice has stirred up immigration advocates and civil rights activists who see checkpoints ripe for racial profiling and abuse of office. Some motorists post videos on social media accusing agents of crude, inappropriate questioning.
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The Laredo-area checkpoint is on one of the busiest highways along the border, particularly for trucks, increasing the possibility of stifling trade and causing chaos as every motorist is stopped and questioned.
Border Patrol officials describe the checkpoints as an imperfect but effective second line of defense after the border, and concede that agents must balance the interests of law enforcement with disrupting legitimate trade and travel.
Volume and configuration vary widely between checkpoints, but agents generally have five to seven seconds to decide whether to question a driver, said Roy Villareal, former Tucson, Ariz. sector chief of the Border Patrol.
“Finally, when it comes to crime in general, it’s very difficult to pinpoint. It’s hard to tell if you’re 100% effective, 50%, 10%.”
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US Rep. Henry Cuellar, who drives through the checkpoint almost weekly, said investigators believe the migrants boarded the truck in or around Laredo, although this is unconfirmed. That would conform to smuggling patterns: migrants cross the border on foot and hide in a house or bush on US soil before being apprehended and taken to the nearest major city.
Even if the truck were empty, this would raise questions about the checkpoints. Migrants often die trying to bypass them and are dropped off before they reach them, with plans to be picked up on the other side. In the Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for illegal border crossings, migrants walk through muggy ranches to avoid a checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas, about 70 miles north of the border.
The Government Accountability Office reported this month that agents at domestic checkpoints arrested about 35,700 people suspected of being in the US illegally in fiscal years 2016-20, only about 2% of all arrests by border patrol . Agents made nearly 18,000 drug seizures during that period, with more than nine out of 10 arrests involving US citizens.
They were a trap for US citizens who even carried small bags of marijuana. According to a previous GAO report in fiscal years 2013-2016, about 40% of pots seized at Border Protection checkpoints were one ounce (28 grams) or less from US citizens.
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Abbott did not provide details on the scope of the new Texas domestic inspections announced Thursday. Lt. Chris Olivarez, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said the soldiers were taking a “more aggressive stance.” When asked if that meant stopping every truck, Oliverez said he didn’t know and it would depend in part on staffing.
“It’s inspecting more than we normally inspect,” Olivarez said.
In April, Abbott blocked the Texas border for a week after ordering that soldiers inspect every trailer truck entering from Mexico as part of its ongoing battle with the Biden administration over immigration policy. These inspections, which were mechanical and security inspections, found no migrants or drugs.
Spagat reported from San Diego. Paul Weber contributed from Austin, Texas.
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https://globalnews.ca/news/8960559/texas-migrants-dead-border-check/ How did the truck that killed 53 migrants get through a US border checkpoint? – National