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Death on the border Part 3: Laid to rest

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WORLD Radio - Death on the border Part 3: Laid to rest

Funeral homes and morgues near the southern border bear the brunt of identifying and burying migrants who die while crossing into the United States


Crosses for unidentified immigrants at the Maverick County Cemetery, Eagle Pass, Texas Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Thursday, July 20th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: the border.

Since the end of Title 42, illegal crossings at the Southern Border are down, compared to last year. But they are still at historically high numbers. That means more migrants die along the way.

REICHARD: When a migrants’ remains are found, local, county, and federal authorities and volunteers collaborate on the identification process. But without a unifying protocol coordinating their efforts, progress is slow, even counterproductive.

BROWN: WORLD Correspondent Bonnie Pritchett brings us this third and final installment about death on the border.

BONNIE PRITCHETT, REPORTER: Just outside the fence surrounding the Brooks County detention center sits a white shipping container. Motors on one end constantly drone. It’s a portable morgue, provided by the State of Texas.

AUDIO: [SOUND OF MOTORS]

Don White volunteers with the local sheriff’s department, searching for migrants who have disappeared on the vast ranches. White says many venture into arid scrubland to avoid border checkpoints…and he says the consequences are inevitable.

WHITE: And that means more people I have to find. And more people that will Border Patrol will find them. Ranchers will find them, I find them.

He brings those remains to this morgue.

WHITE: If it's just skeletal then they'll go into evidence room full bodies come in here…

White unlocks the padlock and swings open the morgue door, releasing a blast of cold air. Mingled with it is the whir of refrigeration fans and an underlying tang of decomposition. The cold air—just above freezing—slows the decay process.

WHITE: These racks are custom built…

Like shiny bunk beds stacked five high, two rows of steel racks line either side of the 40-foot container. Black body bags occupy 10 of the bunks. There’s room for at least 20 more.

Most, if not all, died in the deserts of Brooks or Zavala Counties.

That’s not always the case in the regions bordering the Rio Grande.

REPORTER: Four migrants including an infant have drowned in the Rio Grande river in a 48 hour span…

That’s how July began in Maverick County.

Last fall, in the span of a few weeks, at least 25 migrants died there. Nine of those drowned in one day.

The death rate was too many. Too fast. And the county’s state-supplied portable morgue reached capacity. Rito Valdez and his family’s funeral service couldn’t keep up with the demand to retrieve remains.

VALDEZ: We got to a point for us that no one was taking cases. Okay? And we had 10 bodies in our freezer…

That maxed out their storage capacity. So, after a Border Patrol agent with the Missing Migrant Program took fingerprints—if possible—and documented other identifying characteristics, the funeral home resolved the capacity problem on their own.t

VALDEZ: With that, the body was kind of identified. So, then we were storing them, burying them on the county cemetery in order for us to have a place for them. So, by doing that, the way of us thinking if it was right or wrong, I don't know. But it was the only option we had because no one was helping us.

Over in Brooks County, Eddie Canales criticized that decision.

EDDIE CANALES: What happened in Maverick County, you know, we found out that they were burying people without the DNA taken…

A decade ago, after discovering his county was the deadliest region for migrants entering the United States, Canales founded the South Texas Civil Rights Center.

EDDIE CANALES: And we quickly discovered that they were not taking DNA from the bodies that they encountered in the brush. And that's in violation of state law…

Until 2013, Brooks County buried scores of migrants without obtaining the required DNA sample. Then, staff and volunteers from Texas State University’s forensic anthropology department began exhuming bodies to collect the samples. The county still partners with the university. If the deceased can’t be identified within 30 to 60 days, the bodies are sent to the school for analysis and storage.

Other South Texas counties contract with the Webb County coroner to collect DNA.

But, when DNA isn’t collected before burial…

CANALES: So we had to do an exhumation. We did an emergency exhumation there in Maverick County.

The Maverick County Cemetery tombstones are awash with brilliantly colored flowers. Most of them are fake but serve as a real testament of the living’s care for the dead.

Some of those flowers adorn temporary grave markers. They have names like “Jane Doe,” and “Baby John MC22002946 Doe.” The infant’s middle name is his Maverick County case number.

Cemetery caretaker Valentin Guerra describes who’s buried in this corner lot.

VALENTIN GUERRA: Some of them are like, people there are live here, but they have no family…

Among the dead are those hastily buried last fall by Memorial Funeral Services. Despite the criticism, Rito Valdez defends his decision to bury the bodies before DNA testing.

VALDEZ: This is a person see and you need to treat that person with dignity. So that's why I thought well, let's bury them. And then, if they find a relative, then they can disinter and do the final disposition on him the way they should. But right now instead of having them in a freezer, I think it's better for them to be buried.

AUDIO: [MORGUE MOTOR]

As of July 11, Jane Doe was still resting in the Maverick County portable morgue. The woman found alone on a South Texas ranch with a backpack, a bottle of water, and a bag of chips. No one knows who she is. And the effort to find out seems to have stalled. A Border Patrol agent with the Missing Migrant Program couldn’t get fingerprints because of the state of decomposition. And DNA samples have not yet been requested.

Across the U.S. southern border, a ragtag group of volunteers and professionals are working to find and identify migrants’ remains. Some counties have learned hard lessons. Others are still trying to figure things out.

And the payoffs are slim. Volunteers like Don White in Brooks County have nothing to gain but the bittersweet satisfaction of replacing a case number with a name.

When White does find remains - and they’re identified - he knows it means a family’s search has ended. So too has hope.

WHITE: There's always that little shred of hope. So, if I'm successful, I shred that. But now they have confirmation for sure their loved ones have been found and gets coming back home. Simple as that.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Bonnie Pritchett in South Texas.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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