Fifty people believed to be migrants to the US have died after they were abandoned in a tractor trailer in San Antonio, Texas, during a blazing heatwave on Monday in one of the worst human smuggling tragedies in the country’s history.

Local officials initially reported that 46 people had died in the 18-wheeler, discovered Monday evening on a rural road in the south-east of the city by a nearby worker. However, the death toll climbed to 50 by Tuesday morning, a spokesperson for US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement confirmed.

Local officials said 16 people, including four children, had been transported to nearby hospitals on Monday evening with signs of heat stroke and exhaustion. The trailer where the bodies were found was equipped with air-conditioning though it did not appear to be working, the officials said. Texas has been experiencing a record-breaking heatwave, and temperatures soared above 38C (100F) in San Antonio on Monday.

“This is nothing short of a horrific human tragedy,” San Antonio mayor Ron Nirenberg said at a press conference.

Three people believed to be part of the human smuggling conspiracy had been detained, the ICE spokesperson said.

Texas’s Republican governor Greg Abbott assigned blame to president Joe Biden, who he has long accused of having an “open border” policy.

“These deaths are on Biden. They are a result of his deadly open border policies. They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law,” he tweeted on Monday night.

Biden in a statement called the incident “horrifying and heartbreaking” and said it underscored the need to “go after the multibillion-dollar criminal smuggling industry preying on migrants and leading to far too many innocent deaths.”

The Biden administration has resisted calls to unwind Trump era border policies as it finds itself in a bind. On the one hand, it is criticised by activists that decry the policies as inhumane, while on the other, Republicans are eager to paint the president and his party as being easy on illegal immigration.

Biden’s press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre pushed back against Republican claims that president Biden had an “open border” policy that was to blame for the deaths.

“The fact of the matter is the border is closed, which is in part why you see people trying to make this dangerous journey using smuggling networks,” she said.

Abbott has put a crackdown on illegal immigration into Texas at the centre of his re-election campaign ahead of November’s gubernatorial elections, deploying state resources and police officers to the border under what he has called Operation Lone Star.

Migration levels into Texas have surged after the coronavirus pandemic, and state officials have said they expect the number to continue to rise this year. US Customs and Border Patrol reported a record number of arrests at the border in May.

Beto O’Rourke, Abbott’s Democratic challenger and former presidential candidate, called the deaths “devastating”.

“We need urgent action — dismantle human smuggling rings and replace them with expanded avenues for legal migration that reflect our values and meet our country’s needs,” he said.

The Supreme Court is likely to issue a ruling this week on whether or not the Biden administration can throw out the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, which required asylum seekers to be detained or stay in Mexico while their cases were heard, which can often take years. The ruling will sharpen the debate over immigration policy as the midterm elections near.

The deaths are the latest in a number of cases in recent years that have seen large groups of migrants die while being smuggled into the US, often in large trucks or vans in sweltering summer heat. In July 2017, 10 people were found dead in a trailer in a Walmart parking lot in San Antonio.

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