Tragedy At The Border:

The Worst Immigrant Tragedy in American History

review written by Andrew Hills | book written by Jorge Ramos

   On the night of May 14, 2003, on a highway outside of Victoria, Texas, 19 immigrants died of asphyxiation, dehydration and heat exposure inside of a locked, double-insulated trailer truck. The dead were among 73 Latin Americans who were trying to start a new life in the United States and who had paid a trafficker to smuggle them into Houston. This tragedy brings forth the issue of U.S. and Mexican immigration policies.

   Dying to Cross is the true story of the most appalling immigration tragedy to have ever occurred in America. Never in history have so many illegal immigrants died in an attempt to migrate to America, as on May 2003, when nineteen people died of dehydration and heat exposure as a result of being trapped inside a trailer truck. Jorge Ramos is the author of this book, but he is also the man in charge of retelling this horrendous tragedy. Ramos has been the anchorman for Noticiero Univision for the last sixteen years and has won seven Emmy Awards and the Maria Moors Cabot Award for Excellence in Journalism. He writes a weekly column for more than fifty newspapers through the New York Times Syndicate, and started working at a radio station in Mexico City. However, he left his country (Mexico) when the biggest Mexican television network censored a report he had made. Looking for another job and a different life, he decided to immigrate to the United States.

   On a humid, spring evening in May 2003, the illegal immigrants were corralled inside the trailer of a truck with no windows, no light, and no open doors for fresh air and with very little room to move as the truck lumbered down the highway between Harlingen, Texas and the city of Houston. According to reports, at least seventy-three undocumented immigrants who had crossed the Mexican border with the hope of making it to the United States to create a better life for themselves. Among the undocumented immigrants accounted for that made the journey, there were forty-eight people from Mexico, fifteen from Honduras, eight from El Salvador, one from Nicaragua and one from the Dominican Republic. Each immigrant had to pay a “coyote”, a trafficker of undocumented immigrants who would supposedly help them across the border and get them to Houston, Texas. Not everyone paid the same amount for their passage to America. The Mexicans paid less due to their geography, while the Central Americans had to pay a substantially larger amount of money for their way across the border. Often times the price paid was a lifetime of savings of the immigrant trying to make it to the United States. The fateful day the migrants traveled was one of the hottest days that spring in Texas. The high daytime temperatures, humidity, and heat generated by so many dozens of bodies turned the trailer of the truck into a deathtrap. One immigrant explained, “It was like I was slowly dying in there, that was how bad I felt.”¹ Many of these immigrants were mislead in to believing that they would be traveling with a small amount of people in a truck rather than a sealed trailer. By the time they arrived at the truck and saw how many people there were, they were so desperate to make the trip that they blindly entered the trailer anyway.

   The truck left Harlingen, Texas and turned north on U.S. Highway 77; the driver had been told he was only driving the immigrants to Robstown, but he had no idea that later on he would be asked to continue the journey all the way to Houston. The immigrants did not fit comfortably in the trailer, as some people remained on their feet, leaned against the walls, and squatted. Right from the start the immigrants began to experience the symptoms of extreme heat exposure: dizziness, nausea, and disorientation. “Five minutes later I started to sweat, a lot…Everyone started to sweat, it was hot, everyone was sweating and sweating.” said Enrique Cuate². They were also all wearing everything they owned, as nobody was willing to leave behind the few items they possessed. In addition to the natural heat, many of the immigrants were wearing T-shirts, long-sleeved shirts, and jackets. Logically, they had feared that it might get very cold inside the container because they were told the driver would put on the air conditioning. Another problem was that there was no way for fresh air to enter the trailer. Some of the immigrants tried prying off the metal layer that covered the door, but it did not work, and by the second hour inside the trailer, many of the immigrants were hyperventilating. The darkness, the fear, and the strange noises made by their fellow passengers only added to their anxiety. After about two hours, the immigrants began to discuss what they should do once the truck pulled into the immigration inspection center. They could make a lot of noise and bang against the walls, but that would only get them deported and they would lose all the money they had already paid the coyotes.

   During the discussion of what to do, the voice of the driver piped up, and said it would only be half an hour until they would be let out. With this announcement, the debate ended, but little did they know that it would still be another two and a half hours until they reached their destination. One person inside the trailer was carrying a cell phone, and he did get through to a 911 operator. “They answered me in English,” said Matias Medina, a twenty-five year old Honduran, “And since I don’t speak the language, we didn’t get any help.”³ Hyperthermia, or high body temperature, made them feel as if they had depleted all their energy, and by the third hour, many of them were terribly weak and their pulses barely perceptible. Some of the passengers were dying, as several of their bodies’ lost their ability to regulate their temperatures, giving way to tremors, convulsions, swelling of the lungs, and finally a sudden death brought on by heart failure. After four hours on the road, the truck suddenly came to a halt. The driver had noticed one of his tail lights was dangling. The driver then pulled over to the side of the road, but was not close to the immigration checkpoint. As soon as he stepped out to examine the tail light, he heard the banging and shouting from inside the trailer. He opened the trailer door and saw some bodies in the fetal position. All of this sent the driver into a state of panic, so he decided to enter the gas station convenience store and buy water bottles. After distributing the bottles, the frightened driver disengaged the driver’s cab from the truck trailer and fled the scene. Most of the surviving immigrants tried to flee from the trailer in order not to be caught by immigration services, but in the end all were found and detained. Each survivor was granted a work visa and Social Security number so that they could remain in the United States for the duration of the trial against the traffickers. At the root of this grisly tragedy is a 25 year old Honduran born woman named Karla Chavez who after months of investigation was found to be the leader of the "human trafficking cell" responsible for the tragedy.Long before, when she was a teenager, Karla had crossed the United States border illegally and had gone to work at a Levi’s factory. She eventually settled down in the United States and had three children, but she now found herself forced to give it all up and flee back to Honduras in fear of being found guilty. Chavez had many debts of her own to pay off, she had three children to take care of and she had to help out her family back in Honduras. Agents involved with the case distinguished that this had not been Chavez’s first immigrant trafficking operation. In fact, she herself admitted that she had participated in at least four other operations transporting more than sixty-two people. Chavez had the contacts to find undocumented immigrants who wanted to travel to Houston, and her employees figured out how to transport them. Tyrone Williams was the driver of the truck, and for him the deal he was originally told was fairly simple. All he had to do was drive the immigrants to Robstown, Texas, at which he would earn $3,500. But once he was out on the road he was offered $2,500 more if he agreed to drive all the way to Houston. Williams was later charged with transporting undocumented immigrants and fleeing the scene of a crime. Karla Chavez pled guilty to one of the fifty-six charges against her in the hopes of a receiving a reduced sentence.

   The debate regarding illegal immigrants and how the United States and Mexico are under pressure to resolve this problem is very relevant today. The author, in his account of this deadly event, raises the issue of accepting the status quo. It is not just a question of economics and national security, but also one of humanitarianism. Despite the tensions between the two countries, the Mexican and United States governments do agree on something: they both seek to blame the tragedy on the coyotes, the traffickers of undocumented immigrants. However, it is not only the coyotes’ fault for the deaths of many immigrants, but the governments of Mexico and the United States are partially to blame for what is happening. Over time methods and routes for crossing the border have grown increasingly dangerous, which makes the issue even more crucial. The Mexican Consul General, Eduardo Ibarrola said, “…the traffickers have no respect whatsoever for the life or the well-being of the human beings with whom they operate their trafficking ring.”4 The coyote business has blossomed as a side result of the United States’ flawed immigration policies, Mexico’s permanent state of economic crisis, and both countries’ inability to reach any kind of immigration agreement. The author argues that instead of hunting down immigrants and penalizing illegal border crossings, both governments could find a way to regularize the entry of immigrants in an orderly fashion so that Mexico might provide the U.S. economy with the workers it needs; border deaths would become a thing of the past, and both countries would finally come to an agreement on the question of immigration.

   The author’s point of view acts as a journalistic account with firsthand testimony of what happened that night and the following days after, but does not attempt to present an exhaustive description of each and every detail of the case. Ramos states, “My sole intention is to tell the story from the point of view of those who actually lived through it. Nothing more. This is their testimony to me. I owe it to the victims and the survivors to keep pure the vents of their experience.”5 Ramos has no intention of making the situation bigger than it really was, and has no bias toward illegal immigrants. However, being a legal immigrant himself, he may sympathize with illegal immigrants and their incredibly harsh journey to the United States. Ramos goal is to retell the story of the immigrants who lost their lives and those that survived, he personalizes them so that they are not nameless victims. The author was successful in keeping the book realistic. In a thorough narrative, Jorge Ramos dissects the events that lead so many people to enter into an agreement with coyote (human trafficker) after coyote, in what to the immigrants on that fateful day, was a faceless entity, and their only hope for work and a chance at a better life in the United States. Ramos supplies detailed background information on the general issue of illegal U.S. immigration, and also information pertaining to the individual struggles of the immigrants presented in this book. Ramos succeeds in showing the human faces of the victims by providing first hand accounts that do not embellish or exaggerate the tragedy that has occurred. “…Urrea’s magnificent book about the death of fourteen immigrants in the Arizona desert, convinced me that this was the kind of story that had to be told…if there is no sense of urgency, nothing will ever change in that immense cemetery we call the U.S.-Mexican border, a cemetery that is only growing larger with each passing day.”6 Although he gives a good account of the tragedy, Ramos leaves us asking more questions. He does not provide any closure or specific solutions to the illegal immigration problems that are plaguing the United States and Mexico, and although Ramos did openly state that there is an immigration problem between the two countries, he neglects to delve more deeply into the debate and provide some sort of conclusion to his thesis.

   Immigration as portrayed in this book is similar to that of immigration of the past in the United States. Illegal immigrants throughout history have paid large amounts of money, usually all of which they owned, to be secretly transported in cargo holds to the United States. These immigrants also met untimely and tragic deaths, although many of their stories go untold. These foreigners migrated to other countries for many of the same reasons Mexicans migrate today. Poor political leadership, faltering economies, and the prospect of more jobs and money in the United States have been enticing to many illegal immigrants for decades. The conditions that past immigrants have endured in order to get to the United States are similar to the abuses and violations of human rights that modern immigrants face today. Both modern and past newcomers travel to the United States for the same reasons: to search for work and a better way of life.

   The public is convinced that the responsibility is shared by various groups, by the groups that smuggle immigrants, but also by the governments of the United States and Mexico. Because of the conditions that immigrants must endure in order to get to the United States – all the journeys become atrocious, unacceptable violations of human rights. The persecution strategy – that of treating people as criminals for trying to keep themselves and their family together, for hoping to find a better way of life – is wrong. According to the latest reports, approximately three thousand people a day are caught attempting to cross the borders of the United States. Yet for every three thousand caught, hundreds actually do make it across and begin what they think will be a better life than the one left behind in their homelands. Although the Mexican immigrants and most illegal immigrants are not criminals and are only looking for a better way of life, it is still legally wrong to illegally cross the United States border. The risks are immense for these individuals: the dangers lurking behind every decision made, every shady deal agreed upon, lead many toward the edge of mortality. Many fall off this edge and are later found dead - an unmarked, unidentified corpse in a country where their dreams will never be realized, and, worse, their bodies never even identified. The governments of the United States and Mexico are reaching a crucial point in border relations. Something has to be done, or else many more legal United States citizens will become increasingly angry. Not only will United States citizens become more aggravated, but a solution needs to be reached in order to prevent tragedies such as the one in Texas from happening again. Citizens today must also face that, as citizens, we are partially to blame as well. The citizens of the United States and Mexico have been unable to demand that authorities address this issue.


1. Ramos, Jorge. Dying to Cross. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005. 48
2. Ramos, Jorge. Dying to Cross. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005. 45
3. Ramos, Jorge. Dying to Cross. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005. 52
4. Ramos, Jorge. Dying to Cross. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005. 148
5. Ramos, Jorge. Dying to Cross. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005. xix
6. Ramos, Jorge. Dying to Cross. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2005. 173