A crowd of San Antonio residents and migrants gathered June 29 at Travis Park downtown to rally for migrants’ rights and to pray for 53 people who died in what the US Department of Homeland Security calls the nation’s deadliest migrant smuggling case.

The evening rally included representatives from several local nonprofits and causes as well as members of area indigenous tribes offering prayers for individuals found dead or dying in an abandoned, stifling tractor-trailer in southwest San Antonio on June 27.

On June 29, the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office said it had taken custody of the remains of all victims who died in the semitrailer. Law enforcement officials responding to the incident said the victims had neither water nor air conditioning.

According to the county, 48 victims were initially recovered from the scene on June 27, but that the death toll had risen by the morning of June 29. Forty of the victims are male and 13 are female, the county said.

“While verification through consular channels is pending, 37 of the victims have potential identifications. The BCMEO is currently coordinating with the consulates of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador,” a county news release said.

Community members gathered for an impromptu memorial service June 28 along Quintana Road, where the semitrailer was found.

The June 29 rally and tribute at Travis Park drew organizers who expressed sadness about the many lives lost.

Organizers also voiced anger with immigration, border security and foreign policies that they say drive desperate individuals to risk their lives to enter the United States in search of a better life.

Leonora Walker, chief executive officer for the nonprofit FREED Texas (Finish Recidivism Through Education, Employment and Divinity), spoke at the rally.

Walker said the June 29 rally was both a chance to pay tribute to the migrants and an opportunity to compel people to act by campaigning for social justice and registering or mobilizing to vote in upcoming elections, such as the November state and federal midterms and the 2024 presidential vote.

Walker also said current immigration laws do not reflect a need to re-emphasize the importance of human rights.

“We need to have conversations that enact policy change,” Walker said.

More than 30 migrants attended the rally at Travis Park, which sits close to a handful of downtown bus stations that are destinations for migrants arriving in San Antonio or those headed elsewhere.

Jessy Amaya, who came to town from Venezuela in the spring, said he is a medic who along with fellow migrants has been on a complex, oft-treacherous journey to the United States in search of work and a stable life. Amaya said he felt he had to leave political corruption and its consequences in his native land.

Amaya said the June 27 tragedy shows a migrant’s journey is hard and dangerous, but made necessary because their native lands are beset with violence and poverty. He added that migrants need essentials—clothing, food and other basic supplies—as they try to find a safe place to land.

“We need to find a way for people traveling to the United States, to make it safe for them,” Amaya said.

A young woman named Wanda, a member of the inner city youth group Circles In Da Hood, said she has experienced much racial discrimination as an immigrant, but has worked hard to be self-reliant and help her family.

Wanda said the deaths of 53 migrants saddened and angered her. She added that migrants—and individuals in marginalized communities—need support and solidarity with allies.

“If we’re asking you to be a friend, to be family, be a friend, be family, because in this moment right now, we need you,” Wanda said.

Another speaker was Laura Molinar, founder and co-director of Sueños Sin Fronteras, a local grassroots group that provides humanitarian relief and resources to asylum seekers.

Molinar said the deaths of 53 migrants was no accident.

“It was the result of historical racism, a border wall, militarization, hyper-surveillance and the failure of our elected leaders to enact policies that allow people to migrate freely and safely,” Molinar said.

Kimiya Factory, president of the local grassroots organization Black Freedom Factory, said migrants’ rights matter and that now is the time for residents and groups to demand accountability from current elected officials or candidates who could replace them.

“The future of Texas happens this November [election]. We need to take this energy to the polls,” Factory said.

Travis Park Church Associate Minister Gavin Rogers told the crowd that Jesus and his family were essentially refugees who felt compelled to flee to another land to escape danger and persecution. Rogers said he would welcome all migrants.

“You are sacred, and your lives are sacred,” Rogers told the migrants attending the rally.

Outside of the June 29 rally, other groups have voiced outrage over the deaths of 50-plus migrants in South Texas.

Jessica Azua, Texas Organizing Project’s immigration justice director, issued a statement blaming the tragedy on what she called state and national immigration policies that force hopeless migrants to take dangerous paths to come to the United States.

“State and federal lawmakers can point fingers all they want, but the truth is this: Decades of failed, inhumane immigration policies from Title 42 to Gov. [Greg] Abbott’s Operation Lone Star contributed to what is now being recognized as our country’s deadliest human smuggling incident on record,” Azua said.

In at least one potential change in federal immigration laws, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 30 that President Joe Biden is free to end the President Trump-era “remain in Mexico” policy that required certain legal asylum seekers to return to Mexico while they await a hearing.

Elsewhere, more migrant memorials and relief efforts are underway. The city of San Antonio said it is partnering with the local faith community to urge donations of goods to the San Antonio Food Bank to help migrants passing through San Antonio or staying in town.

According to a city release, donations of new clothes and nonperishable food items can be made in person at the food bank anytime between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s office announced a public mass will be held 7 p.m. June 30 at San Fernando Cathedral, 115 Main Plaza, to honor the victims of the June 27 tragedy.

The city said people unable to attend are urged to remember or pay tribute to human smuggling victims and survivors in their own home or congregation or show support in their front yard.

Fuerza Unida, a local organization, said there is another opportunity for community members to gather and pray at 7 p.m. June 30 for the migrants who died earlier this week. The gathering will be held at the corner of Cassin Drive and Quintana Road in southwest San Antonio, where the semitrailer was found.

The U.S. Attorney Office revealed the names of four suspects facing human smuggling charges in connection with the migrants’ deaths: Christian Martinez, Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao, Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez and Hector Zamorano. Federal authorities said Zamorano, if convicted, could face life in prison or the death penalty.