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Dreams of better life ended in tragedy

By the Advocate Editorial Board
May 17, 2017 at 4:21 p.m.
Updated May 17, 2017 at 10:10 p.m.

Fourteen years ago, Victoria became the site of what is considered to be the worst human smuggling tragedy in American history.

First responders arrived at the scene just after 2:30 a.m. May 14, 2003, to see a locked tractor-trailer packed with 74 undocumented immigrants.

The temperature reached 170 degrees inside the abandoned trailer, and first responders found the bodies of 17 people. Two others died later. In all, 19 died of suffocation, dehydration and hyperthermia. Survivors scrambled fearing for their lives.

Those trapped inside pleaded with the trucker when they stopped for water, but in the end, the driver left them to die on Fleming Prairie Road.

These people climbed into that trailer in Harlingen en route to Houston with the dream of a better life.

They came from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic. Among the souls lost were a 31-year-old father, Jose, and his 5-year-old son, Marco, from Mexico City.

Traveling on U.S. Highway 77, they suffered a terrible fate in an area referred to as the "Fatal Funnel" by Victoria County Sheriff T. Michael O'Connor.

This highway, along with U.S. Highway 59, is the route criminals often take smuggling people and drugs.

The driver, Tyrone Williams, is serving 34 years in prison. Another 13 people were indicted in the federal case.

While we certainly don't encourage illegal immigration, our nation's current immigration system has serious flaws. It is this broken system that gives way to these kinds of tragedies. Immigrants are risking their lives every day to pierce our borders.

Since 2003, people have traveled to a makeshift memorial of water bottles, stuffed animals and crosses in a weed-filled ditch to mourn the deaths of 19 immigrants. For some time, a roadside sign accompanied the memorial reading "In Memory of the 19 Immigrants Who Died May 14, 2003."

But that sign installed by the Victoria County Road Department was stolen years ago.

The editorial board urged the community in a 2009 editorial to create a proper memorial at the site to honor the lives lost.

O'Connor said that for years he tried to get this project going, and he still believes a permanent memorial should be built. He envisioned moving the memorial somewhere nearby where visitors could quietly go and reflect. Perhaps something with a water feature or a fountain would honor those who lost their lives.

Last weekend, the Rev. Gabriel Espinosa of Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church held a memorial mass there. Every year, mourners, including surviving family members and social justice groups, attend the mass to honor the immigrants who perished on that date. They have also expressed interest in establishing a more fitting, permanent memorial.

We should all come together to make this happen, and perhaps for the 15th anniversary we will have something in place that pays homage to the lives lost.

This opinion reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate's editorial board.


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