For immigration attorney Michael Ponder, this weekend's news of a deadly smuggling operation in San Antonio was an all too familiar tale.
"It's very tragic. It's very sad to hear," Ponder explained, while sitting in his Austin office.
In 2007, Ponder began working with a victim from the 2003 Victoria smuggling case in which 19 people were killed.
"[My client] very vividly described the horrific scene of people suffering and dying all around him, and not knowing if he'd be one of the people who died, too," Ponder recalled.
While Ponder is not currently representing any of the victims associated in the San Antonio case, he provided analysis from his experience.
First - the distinction between smuggling and trafficking. Smuggling focuses on a deliberate attempt to evade a country's immigration laws, while trafficking focuses on the exploitation of individuals.
"You're much more limited in your recourses when it's a smuggling case as opposed to a trafficking case," Ponder explained.
As for the future of the victims, Ponder said those who are willing to testify - and have the most information about those responsible - could be given temporary work visas to assist authorities.
"These people's testimony is going to be very important in putting some very dangerous people in jail," Ponder said.
Another avenue - a U visa. The 3-year visa is for victims of certain crimes who cooperated with law enforcement. Those crimes include trafficking, unlawful criminal restraint, felony assault, and manslaughter.
Ponder's client in the Victoria case received a U-visa after a federal judge approved it.
"It was my analysis that [my client] had been restrained unlawfully," Ponder said. "So for him, it was unlawful criminal restraint, and I was able to get a federal judge to sign off on the U-visa, and submitted it to USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). And they eventually agreed with that analysis of the case that it was unlawful criminal restraint."
He added that following the expiration of his U-visa, his client received a green card.
As for currently obtaining U-visas, Ponder said there is a backlog, and the wait could be six years.
If law enforcement believes those involved were victims of trafficking, Ponder said they would be eligible for a T-visa.
"If it's trafficking, you don't need law enforcement to sign off on it," explained Ponder. "You can go directly to USCIS and get the visa."
Ponder noted that even with a T-visa, the victim involved still would have the requirement to cooperate with law enforcement during a criminal investigation.
A spokeswoman for the Mexican General Consul of San Antonio said they believe the surviving members will be sent to a detention center following their medical treatments - where they'll be offered legal assistance.
KVUE reached out to ICE to learn about the backgrounds of the victims. They declined to answer our questions at this time.
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