More than two dozen people who survived a 150-mile journey crammed into a sweltering tractor-trailer could be eligible to receive special visas that would allow them to stay in the United States in exchange for testimony against their alleged smugglers.
Ten people died during or after the journey, and it's unclear what will happen to the 29 survivors, who are currently in hospitals or being detained.
Most of the people in the truck were from Mexico or Guatemala, and they could eventually face deportation.
All of the survivors have been deemed "material witnesses" to temporarily stall deportation, The New York Times reported, but that status is subject to change.
Lawyers are reportedly planning to pursue special "U visas" that protect certain victims and witnesses in criminal investigations from deportation so they can testify in court. Silvia Mintz, an attorney for the Guatemalan Consulate in Houston, told Reuters she has already contacted the Department of Homeland Security.
"If we are able to establish the case, we will go ahead and seek the U visa," she said.
The truck's driver, 60-year-old James Bradley, has been charged with knowingly transporting people who are in the country illegally, and if convicted could face the death penalty. Bradley told federal authorities he was unaware the tractor-trailer was filled with people.
Federal authorities have suggested the investigation into the smuggling case could be far-reaching, involving many more suspects beyond Bradley.
"Even though they have the driver in custody, I can guarantee you there's going to be many more people we're looking for to prosecute," Thomas Homan, acting directer of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, told the Associated Press.
But Shane Folden, the special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations in San Antonio, told the Times a decision to exchange visas for the immigrants' testimony is still far off.
"Our focus right now is the criminal investigation," Folden said.
Another factor that could yield potential consequences for the survivors is whether they were willingly smuggled into the country or trafficked involuntarily or under false pretenses. The former implies they committed a crime, but the latter could mean the survivors are eligible for benefits such as financial assistance and housing, the Times reported.
Beyond that, U visa applications require that a law enforcement agency provide certification letters that argue the victim's testimony is essential in a criminal case. Sometimes different agencies dispute whether to provide the letters.
"Some of the worst fights I have seen in my professional life have been between heads of government agencies over witnesses," Michael Wynne, a former federal prosecutor in Texas, told the Times.
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