BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Border Report) — The deaths of eight men at a bus stop across from a migrant shelter in Brownsville, Texas was being called a “hate crime” and by some a “tragic accident” by others, as a memorial for the victims grew with visitors on Monday.
At least 10 others were injured Sunday when a gray SUV plowed into the group that was waiting for a city bus across from the nonprofit Ozanam Center, an overnight shelter that helps migrants.
The driver, who police on Monday identified as George Alvarez, 34, has been charged with eight counts of manslaughter and 10 counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. His bond was set at $3.6 million, and he has a lengthy criminal record, Brownsville Police Chief Felix Sauceda said Monday.
Alvarez crashed onto the sidewalk where many were waiting for a city bus. He then attempted to flee, but was held down by people at the scene, Sauceda said. The SUV had run a red light, lost control and flipped on its side when it struck 18 people, including several from Venezuela, Sauceda said.
Toxicology and other lab reports are being conducted by state crime officials.
Sauceda called it a “tragic event” on Monday as he spoke to a throng of reporters who have descended upon this border town that is among the busiest for migrant crossings as officials prepare to end Title 42 on Thursday night.
News of the crash, is worrying migrants up and down the Southwest border, especially in areas like El Paso where thousands sleep on the streets because migrant shelters are out of space.
Over 25,000 migrants are currently in Border Patrol custody, including over 6,500 in the Rio Grande Valley Sector, which has a capacity for 4,000, Border Report has learned.
Over 25,000 Venezuelans have crossed into Brownsville since mid-April, Border Patrol RGV Sector Chief Gloria Chavez told media on Friday as she entertained Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who came to inspect the area prior to the sunset of Title 42.
Title 42 is the public health order put in place in March 2020 by the Trump administration that forbids asylum-seekers from entering the United States in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. The order is being lifted just before midnight on Thursday, but Mayorkas says it will be replaced by Title 8, a long-standing policy that forbids those without just cause from entering the United States. And those who come in between legal ports of entry and are sent back must wait for five years before trying to cross the border again.
With uncertainty regarding how federal officials will react to migrants when Title 42 ends, it seems that thousands are streaming from Matamoros, Mexico, into Brownsville, by the hour.
Most are Venezuelans, which is a nationality that Mexico for the past couple weeks has refused to accept back from the United States. The United States also does not have repatriation agreements with Venezuela, and several told Border Report they are coming to work and find a better life north of the border.
Capacity in Brownsville also has been reached. The Ozanam Center, which is across the street from the bus stop where the accident occurred. It holds about 250 but has maxed out of space.
The Welcome Center, a nonprofit group across from the city’s bus stop in downtown Brownsville, also is at capacity, and is now helping about 1,000 migrants per day, Andrea Rudnik, a volunteer with Team Brownsville told Border Report.
Bus stop deaths
Junior, 35, says he is a bartender from Punto Fijo, Venezuela, a fishing village bordering the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Venezuela, He says he traveled for a month to get to Brownsville, and walked the Darrien Gap through Panama, to come to the United States where he wants to find a construction job.
On Sunday, he says he was at the bus stop waiting to go into town to buy a bus ticket when he saw the gray SUV come barreling toward them. He says someone yelled and he moved 5 feet to his left, crouched on the ground and covered his head with his hands. He said he was unhurt, but another Venezuelan he knew was killed, and he says they called his wife on Monday and informed her he was dead.
“Thank God I am alive. But it was awful. He died right in front of me,” Junior said in Spanish. “No one here has money, so we were all waiting for the city bus.”
He would not give his last name, and said after the incident he took an Uber to the downtown Brownsville bus station where he bought a ticket for a bus this afternoon to San Antonio. He has a Tuesday flight to Tampa, Florida.
When Border Report caught up with him on Monday, he was standing behind a fenced area at the Ozanam Center, watching as candles, balloons and flowers were placed at the spot where the accident occurred. And he was wary of having his picture taken, and the media.
“I’m afraid to walk on the street now. I don’t feel welcome,” he said. “And I tried so hard to get to this country.”
He added that the person had been yelling at them, and he felt it was a targeted attack.
Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr., told Border Report on Monday that he had no knowledge that this was a hate crime.
“I hope it wasn’t and the indications are it was just a terrible and tragic accident. But if it was, then it’s a very, very terrible sad day that somebody would want to do that but we don’t know that,” Treviño said at the Brownsville Police station, where the suspect, Alvarez, was being held.
Police Chief Saucedo said Alvarez has a long criminal history, including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon; assault against elderly or disabled; assault causing bodily injury to a family member; assault of a public servant; burglary of a vehicle; DWI; evading arrest; possession of marijuana and theft.
Joshua Rubin, founder of the grassroots group Witness at the Border, told Border Report that strict policies preventing migrants from seeking asylum at U.S. borders is stoking hatred in America toward immigrants.
“It’s bad. Very bad. And coming as it is on the eve of the change from Title 42 to a much more severe Title 8, than what was in place before, it just highlights the miserable situation and the wrong-headed situation on the border. If all we try to do is keep people from coming, eventually it leads people to cruel behavior and hatred and it fosters that kind of hatred, the kind that leads to incidents like this and every day leads to the deaths and sickness of people who are abandoned on the other side,” Rubin said.
Diana Joan, 63, a member of Yaqui Tribe of Tucson, Arizona, grew up in Brownsville. On Monday she journeyed back and beat drums and laid flowers on the site where blood could still be seen on the pavement.
“We came to bless the area. To give them honor. To give them a sense of knowing that someone cares,” Joan said. “I feel a lot of pain and anguish and rage.”
She said she has been talking to many people at the accident site and they believed they were targeted. But even if that proves to be false, she says the world is unwelcoming toward asylum-seekers and that is stoking hatred.
“It definitely has a base of hate because of the immigration status of these people. Nationwide, globally, there is an element of hate out there and that’s why we’re here to pray about it,” she said.