Deported wounded with ‘blood on my clothes’, says migrant van crash survivor

MCALLEN, Texas – His clothes were still stained with blood, his swollen hands hurt, and he had difficulty seeing because his glasses had broken at the time of the accident. It was getting dark and he did not know where he was. An immigration agent told him to cross the bridge with the rest of the detainees: He was returned to Mexico three days after surviving one of the worst human trafficking tragedies in Texas.

Antonio, 24, of El Salvador, was traveling in the van that crashed in Encino, Texas, on August 4th. At least 10 people, including the driver, were killed. Most of those who died, as well as 21 other people who were injured, were migrants who had crossed the border into the United States from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico.

Antonio, identified only by his first name because he fears being targeted, told his story to “Noticias Telemundo Investiga” via WhatsApp from Mexico. Antonio reminded to go into shock after the devastating accident; around him he saw dead and wounded people without really knowing what was going on.

A photo sent from the hospital of a Honduran survivor after the van in McAllen, Texas.

The driver was on the phone and was driving at high speeds, according to several survival reports, as he quickly turned right and hit a lamppost. The van ran with twice as many passengers as its capacity, and it was filled with liters of water.

The driver would leave the migrants in a remote area that used to bypass a border patrol checkpoint, Brooks County Sheriff Benny Martinez said.

The Honduran consulate in McAllen confirmed that at least two Hondurans who survived were deported to Mexico after the accident. The Salvadoran consulate did not respond to “Noticias Telemundo Investiga,” and U.S. immigration agencies did not confirm or deny the deportations.

‘An officer promised – he lied to me’

The accident took place around kl. 16, Antonio was rushed to a hospital and discharged a few hours later, around 6 p.m. 20, he said. He had sores on his hands and chest and back pain, and he felt dizzy and disoriented. “The attention was poor. They did not check my hand and it took a while to get attention, ”he said.

McAllen Hospital, which treated most of the wounded, confirmed that more wounded were discharged that night.

“An officer promised me at the hospital that he would send me with my family” in the United States, Antonio said. “He lied to me. I could have gotten away from the hospital, but I was not and am not able to walk or run. I just wanted to do things right and want them to help me. I just want to be with my wife and daughter. ”

Antonio’s family had arrived in the United States a few months before, and his plan had been to meet with them. Antonio said he could not read the officer’s name on his shirt, but remembered that he was wearing a brown uniform. State troops wear uniforms of a similar color; the public security department did not confirm whether any of them visited the hospitals.

The wreck of the van that drove into a utility pile in Encino, Texas. Damià Bonmatí / Telemundo

From hospital to prison cell

“Even though I had a broken hand, they handcuffed me,” Antonio said.

A spokesman for the South Texas Health System in McAllen, Tom Castaneda, told Noticias Telemundo that when they were discharged, several survivors were handed over to immigration officials, who escorted them out of the hospital. Customs and border protection, or CBP, officers at the hospital also stood outside the doors of migrant patients, he said.

Antonio said he was taken to a CBP facility, which he referred to as “heelera”, or ice box, as the facilities are known for their cold temperatures. He said he was put in a cell full of people and given blankets.

“We were 75 people. There was no space or seating, ”he said.

Referring to himself and two other survivors who were in his cell, he said: “They did not let us call. I had a lot of blood on my clothes. They gave us painkillers and we ate virtually nothing. I was weak. I was still stained with blood. We did not sleep. They did not give us another treatment. ”

“Noticias Telemundo Investiga” sent several inquiries to the immigration authorities about the survivors, but the CBP did not confirm or answer any specific questions. In an email, CBP said it does not comment on detainees’ medical conditions for confidential information and that state authorities are conducting the accident investigation.

Antonio said his fingers were still bleeding and swelling and that it was hard to feel them. Under the cold, crowded conditions, he admitted that he was not feeling well when he thought he “saw” one of his friends who had died in the accident, Jorge Alfredo Barralaga, 22, also known as Jorgito. Antonio said he has felt “depressed, sad, alone”.

Shipped to Mexico

Antonio said immigration officials placed a white bracelet on him and the two other accident survivors with their case number on. All three were taken to a bridge on the border, Antonio said.

During the pandemic, the international bridges on the border with Texas have become the center of expulsions of migrants. Some take place hours after people have crossed the U.S. border.

During the current fiscal year, the United States has dealt with more than 846,000 deportations at the southern border under Section 42, speeding up the deportation of those who have crossed the border due to the Covid-19 pandemic; it was started by former President Donald Trump and is still in force under the Biden administration.

Migrants holding their bags of belongings and documents can be easily identified at gateways to Mexico. The question “what city are we in?” can often be heard when they turn on their cell phones again to contact relatives or the smugglers they paid to help them cross the border.

Antonio’s wife, Nathaly, who lives in the United States, told Noticias Telemundo about the call she received from him.

“They just threw him there,” she said by telephone about her husband’s deportation. “My husband had nothing. A friend lent him the phone to call me and see how we could get him out of there. He said people called to grab him and take him and he ran – I called someone to go after Hi M. “

Migrants in Reynosa, Mexico, after being removed under section 42.
Damià Bonmatí / Telemundo

‘My defense is very low’

Antonio said the situation in Mexico has been uncertain. “When I lie down, I can not breathe normally. I feel like I’m getting suffocated. My defense is very low. I am often dizzy, ”he said.

He is suffering from headaches, his hand is still inflamed, his back and waist are painful, he has lost a lot of hearing and he is traumatized by what happened.

“Noticias Telemundo Investiga” has tried in person and by telephone to confirm the dispatch of one or more of the injured from the accident in Encino with the Salvadoran consulate, but has not responded.

Ana Bulnes, the Honduran consul at McAllen, confirmed that at least two Honduran nationals were deported under section 42 and stressed that the decision was solely the U.S. government. So far, at least four Hondurans have died in the crash and another six have been injured. Some migrants were waiting to be discharged from the hospital and others were being treated by immigration authorities, she said.

In Falfurrias, Brooks County, where the accident happened, Sheriff Martinez said no migrants were arrested at the scene. “We did not stop anyone. They were transferred to several hospitals. But as far as I know, there were no arrest warrants on them and I have not received these orders from the border patrol, ”he said, adding that it was possible that some surviving families were contacted.

An officer from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, did not respond directly when asked if the survivors are material witnesses in the accident investigation. In tragedies like the one in San Antonio in 2017, where 10 migrants died in the swarming tractor trailer they were transported in, ICE questioned some of the survivors and opened a road to U-visas for crime victims. The driver was arrested, tried and sentenced to life in prison; the driver of the van in the Encino accident died on the spot.

Asked about the future of the 20 survivors, ICE said it will continue to use its limited resources on national, border and public safety issues.

One week after the accident on Thursday, the Biden administration announced that ICE will prevent the arrest and deportation of undocumented immigrants who have been victims of crimes on American soil.

Antonio said that when he was expelled the week before the announcement, no one asked him about the Encino tragedy.

Immigration lawyer Jorge de la Fuente advised some of the survivors who managed to leave the hospital and told them they could initiate asylum proceedings. But he said, but they often do not do so out of fear. “When you submit an application for immigration, there is a risk that the person will go to their credible fear interview and if they do not pass, they may be deported,” he said.

The deportations to Mexico can happen almost instantly. “The situation in Mexico is very difficult for these immigrants. They are being pressured and abducted, ”said de la Fuente, who works for the organization La Unión del Pueblo Entero on the southern border of Texas.

Nathaly is looking for ways to help her husband in Mexico.

“I know he is a man, but he has cried for me and said he can no longer bear it. I had hoped that they would let him stay in the US because of the accident situation, that he would at least stay while it was being treated or examined, but no. Immigration [authorities], not even because they saw him as he was, did not let him stay. ”

A version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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