The botched Texas smuggling operation that killed 10 has become a flashpoint for the immigration debate

Immigration advocates and sceptics alike have seized on the deaths of 10 people who were found in a sweltering tractor-trailer on Sunday in an alleged human smuggling case gone wrong, arguing that the tragedy demonstrates the need for large-scale immigration reform.

The deaths received national media attention after authorities revealed that more than 100 people were driven about 150 miles through Texas while crammed into the trailer without air conditioning or water, while temperatures outside surpassed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

The truck’s driver, 60-year-old James Bradley, told federal authorities he had been unaware the tractor-trailer was filled with people.

Bradley said after he parked at a San Antonio Walmart and opened the trailer doors, he was knocked down by a group of “Spanish” people fleeing the vehicle, and saw “bodies just lying on the floor like meat.” Bradley has been charged with knowingly transporting people who are in the country illegally, and if convicted could face the death penalty.

Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, a Republican, took to Fox News on Tuesday to pin the tragedy on Democrats and proponents of so-called “sanctuary city” policies.

“Our policies from the last Administration — and quite frankly the Democrat policies of today — of an open border and sanctuary cities allow and enables these drug smugglers who don’t care about human life to put people in this horrific situation,” Patrick said.

He added that it was “past time” congressional Democrats and Republicans passed immigration reform legislation that falls in line with Trump’s goals of securing the border and cracking down on sanctuary cities, which he said “entice” people to attempt to immigrate illegally and turn to human smugglers.

“These people paid a terrible price and demonstrate why we need a secure border and legal immigration reform so we can control who enters our country,” Patrick said in a statement on Facebook.

Earlier this year, Texas passed a law banning jurisdictions that refuse to honour federal requests to detain immigrants. The law allows local officials to be charged with misdemeanours if they knowingly fail to comply with the detainer requests, and ensures localities can’t ban police officers from questioning people on their immigration statuses if they are arrested or detained.

The law, known as Senate Bill 4, is slated to take effect Sept. 1, but has been challenged in court by rights organisations and localities that say the law infringes on local governments’ constitutional rights, and will sow fear through immigrant communities by dissuading people from reporting crimes or testifying as witnesses out of fear they will be deported.

But Democratic critics of Senate Bill 4 have spoken out as well in the wake of the smuggling deaths, arguing that the fatalities and injuries were caused not by sanctuary policies, but by a the current broken immigration system.

“If we had some sort of better policy for immigration purposes, folks like that who are coming over here to work wouldn’t feel compelled to smuggle themselves in a trailer,” Texas Rep. Poncho Nevarez, a Democrat, told Houston Public Media.

Another Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, accused Patrick of “politicizing” the deaths.

“Ten individuals lost their lives this weekend and that deserves our attention, not that the lieutenant governor of Texas successfully passed Senate Bill 4,” Rodriguez told The Austin American-Statesman.

“This moment calls for compassionate people from across the political spectrum to have a difficult and honest conversation about comprehensive immigration reform.”

Immigration experts have also chimed in, arguing that more aggressive immigration enforcement, not to mention the construction of a border wall, will not dissuade people from entering the US illegally — it instead perpetuates a black market in which risky smuggling operations are placed in high demand.

The immigrants are primarily attracted American jobs in the agriculture, hospitality, and construction industries, Jeronimo Cortina, a professor and research associate at the University of Houston’s Center for Public Policy, told The Houston Chronicle.

“Deaths like those in this case are going to be happening again and again, or even more if we don’t tackle the root of the problem,” Cortina said. “It’s a market rule, and it’s not going to change just because you put up more walls.”