MCALLEN, Texas — His clothes were still stained with blood, his swollen hands hurt, and he had difficulty seeing because his glasses had broken in the accident. It was getting dark, and he didn’t know where he was. An immigration agent told him to go across the bridge with the rest of the detainees: He was being returned to Mexico three days after having survived one of the worst human smuggling tragedies in Texas.
Antonio, 24, of El Salvador, was traveling in the van that crashed in Encino, Texas, on Aug. 4. 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 U.S. from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico.
Antonio, who is being identified by only his first name because he fears being targeted, told his story to “Noticias Telemundo Investiga” via WhatsApp from Mexico. Antonio recalled going into shock after the devastating accident; around him he saw dead and wounded people without really knowing what was going on.
The driver was on the phone and driving at high speeds, according to several survivor accounts, when he quickly swerved right, hitting a lamppost. The van was traveling with twice as many passengers as its capacity, and it was filled with gallons of water.
The driver was going to leave the migrants in a remote area 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 expelled to Mexico after the accident. The Salvadoran Consulate didn’t respond to “Noticias Telemundo Investiga,” and U.S. immigration agencies didn’t confirm or deny the deportations.
‘An officer promised — he lied to me’
The accident took place around 4 p.m. Antonio was taken to a hospital and discharged a few hours later, around 8 p.m., he said. He had wounds on his hands and his 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.
The hospital in McAllen that treated most of the wounded confirmed that several injured people were discharged that night.
“An officer promised me at the hospital that he would send me with my family” in the U.S., Antonio said. “He lied to me. I could have escaped from the hospital, but I was not and am not in a position to walk or run. I just wanted to do things right and wanted them to help me. I just want to be with my wife and daughter.”
Antonio’s family had arrived in the U.S. a few months before, and his plan had been to meet up with them. Antonio said he couldn’t read the officer’s name on his shirt but remembered that he was wearing a brown uniform. State troopers wear uniforms of a similar color; the Public Safety Department didn’t confirm whether any of them visited the hospitals.
From hospital to holding cell
“Even though I had a broken hand, they handcuffed me,” Antonio said.
A South Texas Health System spokesman in McAllen, Tom Castaneda, told Noticias Telemundo that, when they were discharged, several survivors were handed over to immigration authorities, who escorted them out of the hospital. Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, officers at the hospital also stood outside the migrant patients’ doors, he said.
Antonio said he was taken to a CBP holding facility, which he referred to as the “hielera,” or icebox, 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 accident survivors who were in his cell, he said: “They didn’t let us make a call. I had a lot of blood on my clothes. They gave us pain relievers, and we didn’t eat anything, practically. I was weak. I was still stained with blood. We didn’t sleep. They didn’t give us any different treatment.”
“Noticias Telemundo Investiga” sent several queries to immigration authorities about the survivors, but CBP didn’t confirm or answer any specific questions. In an email, CBP said that it doesn’t comment on detainees’ medical conditions for privacy reasons and that state authorities are leading the accident investigation.
Antonio said that his fingers were still bleeding and swollen and that it was hard to feel them. In the cold, overcrowded conditions, he recognized that he wasn’t 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.”
Sent to Mexico
Antonio said immigration authorities placed a white bracelet on him and the two other accident survivors with their case numbers on them. All three were taken to a bridge on the border, Antonio said.
During the pandemic, the international bridges on the Texas border have become the center of migrant expulsions. Some take place hours after people have crossed the U.S. border.
During the current fiscal year, the U.S. has processed more than 846, 000 expulsions at the southern border under Title 42, which expedites the expulsion of those who have crossed the border because of the Covid-19 pandemic; it was started by former President Donald Trump and remains in effect under the Biden administration.
Holding their bags of belongings and documents, migrants are easily identifiable at the entrance gates to Mexico. The question “what city are we in?” can frequently be heard when they turn their cellphones back on to contact relatives or the smugglers they paid to help them cross the border.
Antonio's wife, Nathaly, who lives in the U.S., told Noticias Telemundo about the call she got from him.
“They just threw him there,” she said by phone about her husband's expulsion. "My husband had nothing. A friend lent him the phone to call me and to see how we could get him out of there. He said people were calling out to grab him and take him, and he ran — I called someone to go for him.”
‘My defenses are very low’
Antonio said the situation in Mexico has been precarious. “When I’m lying down, I can’t breathe normally. I feel like I’m choking. My defenses are very low. I’m frequently lightheaded,” he said.
He suffers 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 phone, to confirm with the Salvadoran Consulate the deportation of one or several of those wounded from the accident in Encino, but there has been no response.
Ana Bulnes, the Honduran consul in McAllen, confirmed that at least two Honduran nationals were expelled under Title 42 and stressed that the decision was exclusively the U.S. government’s. To date, at least four Hondurans have died in the accident, and six more have been injured. Some migrants were waiting to be discharged from the hospital, and others were being processed by immigration authorities, she said.
In Falfurrias in Brooks County, where the accident occurred, 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 was no arrest warrant on them, and I have not received those orders from the Border Patrol," he said, adding that it was possible that some survivors’ families were contacted.
An officer from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, didn’t directly respond when asked whether the survivors are material witnesses in the accident investigation. In tragedies like one in San Antonio in 2017, in which 10 migrants died in the sweltering tractor-trailer they were being transported in, ICE questioned some of the survivors and opened a path 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 continues to devote its limited resources to national, border and public security cases.
A 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 U.S. soil.
Antonio said that when he was expelled the week before the announcement, no one questioned him about the Encino tragedy.
Immigration lawyer Jorge de la Fuente advised some of the survivors who managed to leave the hospital, telling them they could initiate asylum proceedings. But he said but they often don’t do so out of fear. “When you send an application to immigration, there’s a risk that the person goes to their credible fear interview and if they don't pass, they could get deported,” he said.
The expulsions to Mexico can occur almost immediately. “The situation in Mexico is very difficult for these immigrants. They are extorted 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 to me and said he can’t take it anymore. I had hoped that they would let him stay in the U.S. because of the accident situation, that at least he would stay while it was processed or investigated, but no. Immigration [authorities], not even because they saw him the way he was, didn’t let him stay.”