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Berclair fatalities stir immigration reform conversation

By Melissa Crowe
July 23, 2012 at 2:23 a.m.
Updated July 24, 2012 at 2:24 a.m.


While driving home from Houston on Monday, Benny Martinez made up his mind to visit the scene and retrace the tragedy that happened 3 miles south of his hometown.

He wanted to pay respect to the 14 immigrants from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, victims of circumstance trying to cross into Texas on Sunday.

"I feel so sorry for the people, they come here to better their lives," he said. "They came here and died."

The image ran back and forth in his mind as he tried to find an answer through the emotions and limited details he had: The tread came off the tire, the truck hit the tree.

"I just want to see where it was," Martinez said. "I'm thinking out loud, I'd like to see how he went off the road, could he have missed the tree? I don't know ... They died on impact. Why were there so many in the truck?"

Martinez and his family have devoted years to supporting the Hispanic community through his leadership position with the League of United Latin American Citizens. He leads District 10, which includes Austin, Calhoun, Colorado, DeWitt, Goliad, Jackson, Karnes, Lavaca, Matagorda, Refugio, Victoria and Wharton counties.

While the local league largely supports the community through educational scholarships, the national chapter has addressed the growing need for comprehensive immigration reform.

One key element includes reducing the backlog of people seeking residency or citizenship, and streamlining the naturalization process to be "consistent, fair, and equitable for those seeking U.S. citizenship," according to the national website.

"This is an immigrant country, everybody here has family who came here as immigrants," Martinez said. "I'm not an advocate of illegal immigration, I believe they should make it legal ... Give them amnesty."

Close the border or build a wall, the problem will not go away, Martinez said.

"If I lived in Mexico, my family was starving and I didn't have a job, I'm going to go find some way to put food on the table," he said. "Even if it means coming across illegally."

Victoria County Sheriff T. Michael O'Connor weighed in on the Goliad tragedy from a sheriff's convention Monday in Dallas.

He said he has had conversations with Mexican migrants on why they left, where they were going and where they came from. A 15-year-old girl risked the danger of crossing into Texas to escape her home-life after years of abuse at the hands of her family, O'Connor said.

"Time and time again you'll hear stories of this nature," O'Connor said. "They look at the United States as the land of opportunity."

He said legislators need to "take a hard look" at the issue.

Because getting citizenship can take up to 10 years and cost thousands, "they'll just take their chances," O'Connor said.

In 2003, Victoria caught national attention when an abandoned tractor trailer was discovered filled with deceased immigrants. O'Connor said the memory was still in his mind.

"You look at the heartless aspects of putting these people in harm's way for greed and money," he said. "You don't know if these people will ever be identified."

The circumstances of the wreck - a pickup truck with 22 passengers traveling in broad daylight, mid-July down a busy highway - is not uncommon.

"We haven't come across it in the past two or three years, but it doesn't mean it doesn't exist," he said.

In the past, trafficking came in seasons, typically in the spring and fall. Over the past five years, human smuggling became constant year-round, he said.

He said he hopes sheriffs' proactive efforts have deterred human smuggling.

"It isn't just the border," he said, the depth of the issue spreads from the south up through North Texas.

He said Houston is the primary destination in Texas, and The Crossroads gets caught in the mix.

"In our area, if you draw a line from San Antonio to the boarder, the majority is traversing through Highways 59 and 77," O'Connor said. "Victoria is where both these highways meet."

Although national statistics indicate a decrease in illegal immigration, O'Connor disagrees.

"I absolutely do not agree with that at all, we're the first responders," he said, minutes after a sheriff's seminar ended on the subject Monday afternoon. "There isn't one sheriff here who's telling me it has diminished."

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