Under Sun and Steel: Migration and Inhumane Shelter

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n the night of July 22rd, 2017 in San Antonio, Texas, thirty-nine undocumented migrants were discovered packed into a steel shipping container in a Walmart parking lot. Eight were discovered dead, two later passed away from heat exhaustion, and others will suffer irreversible brain damage. Reports of the incident and first-hand experiences from individuals who were also in the container noted that the container did not have a working air condition. Further, no food or water was accessible to the individuals inside. And while only twenty-nine were inside at the time of discovery, individual testimony revealed that at one point there were over one-hundred individuals packed into the forty-foot shipping container. While such discoveries are surely a tragedy, the narrative is not new.

The journey of migrants into the United States across the U.S.-Mexico border is one which requires great planning, especially if the individual is undocumented. Even though the two countries lay on the same continent, the journey remains treacherous across the natural features such as the Rio Grande and miles of desert landscape. Stricter border enforcement over the last one hundred years has led to unnatural features such as barbed-wire fencing, motion detectors, and drones to be employed in an effort to deter undocumented migration into the U.S. Nevertheless, migrants, and their often hired smugglers, have adapted and found ways to move across the border undetected. One common mode — which has become more common as trade between the two countries has increased — has become steel shipping containers.

Shipping containers have come to be seen in the U.S. imaginary as a space of commerce and trade, exemplified by the mountains of shipping containers that can be observed along coastal regions and border towns. So much so that shows such as Storage Wars, or the more appropriately named Container Wars, depicts experts gambling money to own the contents of the storage. Shipping containers have also become so popular and plentiful that companies are now using the box-shaped container as material to build houses, equipped with windows and electricity. To think of shipping containers as a source of commerce, trade, possible prosperity, and shelter forces us to consider immigrant’s experiences with such matters.

By looking back at the history of metal shelters and encampments, it can show how migrants have always been forced to find means of survival in often unsurvivable places. In geographical regions where temperatures can rise to one-hundred degrees Fahrenheit or higher, metal has been used as a form of shelter. By the 1930s metal production in the U.S. was increasingly mass produced and readily available. Photos from the late 1930s Farm Security Administration reveal that in places like San Antonio, Mexican migrant laborers constructed living quarters out of metal roofing panels. Under these metal shelters, the already scorching sun is intensified. However, these structures were cheap too and relatively easy to assemble.


8a25659v“Rear view of Mexican house, San Antonio, Texas,” Russell Lee, 1939 March, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USF33-012087-M2.


As the economic trade became more complex and globalization more readily accepted throughout the mid-to-late twentieth century, shipping containers became a way to keep the contents inside the same container while only moving the container itself. The movement of shipping containers across international borders became a common sight. This has increased in the latter part of the 20th century with bi-national agreements such as the Border Industrialization Program (BIP) and the North American Free Trade Agreement, both of which opened the U.S.-Mexico border for the movement of goods while tightening the restrictions on the movement of peoples. It is within this history of globalization and neoliberalism where shipping containers have come to be used as plausible sites of shelter and encampment while moving across international borders and border patrol checkpoints.

In 1983 in Pharr, Texas, four undocumented migrants died in the back of a shipping container amongst fifty other men and women. In 1987 in Sierra Blanca, Texas, eighteen Mexican men were discovered dead in a freight train boxcar. Border patrol reports from this incident state that the men died from asphyxiation, they suffocated to death after being locked in the boxcar for over fourteen hours. In a 2003 case in Victoria, Texas, nineteen undocumented migrants who were traveling in a shipping container usually reserved for milk were found dead amongst the few dozen others who were packed into the container. Reports of the incident claim that the temperature rose to one hundred and seventy-three degrees inside of the container before being opened.

Heat along the U.S.-Mexico border can itself be deadly. In Luis Alberto Urrea’s book The Devil’s Highway, he recounts the true story of twenty-six men who, in 2001, crossed a part of the Arizona desert known as the “Devil’s Highway” because of its unbearably high temperatures and other natural and unnatural barriers. Fourteen out of the twenty-six men did not make it out of the desert alive and became known as the “Yuma 14.” “The politics of stupidity that rules both sides of the border,” as Urrea proclaims, is what has led migrants to find alternative and more dangerous routes into the United States, such as in shipping containers.

The recent tragedy concerning the death of ten individuals, including children, in San Antonio who were packed into a shipping container without any ventilation, food, or water should serve as a reminder of the stakes of migration. Due to already inhumane immigration policies deriving from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, immigrants and their paid smugglers are forced to find unsafe and dangerous ways to access the United States. The danger of border crossing is sure to enhance with the building of a “border wall.” Further, Congress’s silence on the issue in San Antonio speaks volumes about how the U.S. views undocumented migrants. Shipping containers on eighteen-wheelers, trains, and ships, will continue to become a site of shelter and encampment as individuals make their way through borderlands. However, the combination of sun and steel could make for a deadly result.

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