The United States has opened a criminal investigation after 51 people were found dead in the back of a tractor-trailer in Texas, in what authorities suspect was part of a human-smuggling operation.
The Department of Homeland Security announced on Tuesday that it had opened a criminal investigation as authorities reported the new tally of “39 men and 12 women” dead.
The incident, one of the deadliest human trafficking tragedies along the US-Mexico border in recent history, served as yet another reminder of the enormous risks asylum seekers take in search of a better life and also how US officials struggle to find the right strategy for patrolling the southern border.
US President Joe Biden, in Europe this week for international summits, said the deaths were "horrifying and heartbreaking."
“Exploiting vulnerable individuals for profit is shameful, as is political grandstanding around tragedy, and my administration will continue to do everything possible to stop human smugglers and traffickers from taking advantage of people who are seeking to enter the United States between ports of entry,” Biden said on Tuesday.
Analysts say clamping down on migrants have driven them to take riskier routes to cross the US border without being detected, or put themselves in the hands of human traffickers who promise them safe passage for a price.
The incident, however, immediately triggered the usual blame game in Washington, with Republicans attacking President Biden, a Democrat, for allegedly being soft on immigration.
"These deaths are on Biden. They are a result of his deadly open border policies," said Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
The White House pushed back, appearing to be shifting the blame on the controversial immigration policies of former Republican President Donald Trump.
“The fact of the matter is, the border is closed, which is in part why you see people trying to make this dangerous journey using smuggling networks,” Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reported on Tuesday.
“Our prayers are with those who tragically lost their lives, their loved ones as well as those still fighting for their lives. We’re also grateful for the swift work of federal, state and local first responders," she added.
A federal judge has kept in place a Trump-era policy that denies many migrants a chance to seek asylum on grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19.
The UN migration agency has reported that nearly 3,000 people went missing or died trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States since 2014.