A Mexican Air Force C-180 cargo plane flew the bodies of 19 immigrant workers back to Mexico last week for burial in many grief-stricken cities and towns. But grief is turning to anger as families of the dead vow to file lawsuits against the Bush administration and Mexico’s Fox administration for criminal negligence in the suffocation deaths of the immigrants locked inside a semi-trailer in South Texas, May 14.

Soon after they were elected, Bush and Fox met and promised a sweeping new immigration policy to avoid such tragedies. But that promise faded as Bush and Ashcroft whipped up anti-immigrant hysteria in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

In Austin, Texas, mourners filled the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church Sunday May 18 for a prayer vigil honoring the immigrant workers and demanding government action to stop the growing death toll along the 2,500 mile U.S.-Mexico border.

The Rev. Lydia Hernandez, executive director of Manos de Cristo, a Presbyterian social justice group, told the congregation that the victims were workers who “risked all seeking a better life in the U.S.”

A father held his 5-year-old son up to a crack in the airtight door, she said, urging the child, “Hold on! We’re going to make it.” She continued, “The child stopped crying. He died and so did his father. It was well documented that people tried to call for help from inside the trailer and their pleas were ignored. We must give a litany of thanks that somebody finally did answer their pleas for help.”

Rev. Hernandez told the World this tragedy is a wake-up call to the nation. “We must answer the pleas of those who suffer extreme poverty every day. The government sets up physical barriers at our borders. They give us duct tape to create a false sense of security. It is all baloney. We must work to create a world of real justice and peace.”

Javier Maldonado, executive director of the San Antonio-based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Texas, told the World, “It is awful that they were the victims of government policy. The more they tighten the border, the more these tragedies will occur. It is just undeniable that the death toll is increasing.”

He pointed out that under NAFTA, trade and the movement of capital across the border has increased “but there is no liberalization of the movement of workers across the border. I’m reluctant to endorse a guest worker program that does nothing to protect the rights of immigrant workers. But something must be done.”

Two weeks before the tragedy, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), the Service Employees International Union, and the Laborers International Union rallied in Washington to demand passage of the “Freedom Act,” legislation that would give undocumented workers three years of legal status and protection under U.S. labor law. As taxpayers, they would be eligible for Medicaid, food stamps, and other benefits. Their status would be renewable and could ultimately lead to citizenship. FLOC is seeking congressional sponsors for the legislation.

The border death toll has risen since the Homeland Security Department began enforcing “Operation Liberty Shield.” The tightened border security has forced immigrants to cross through remote regions like Arizona’s Sonora desert, where many have died of dehydration and heat stroke. In the year 2001, 95 immigrants died trying to cross into California’s Imperial Valley, up from 77 who died in 2000.

During the decade of the ’90s, an estimated 4,000 undocumented immigrants died crossing the border.

Tim Wheeler can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com