A team of forensic anthropologists recently discovered an assortment of improvised burial sites in a South Texas cemetery, where it appears that undocumented immigrants who perished after crossing the border from Mexico were sloppily buried.
The Corpus Christi Caller-Times, who broke the story about what it described as “mass graves,” reported that bodies and bones were found in trash bags and shopping bags, with many piled on top of one another or even placed within the same bag. Skulls in biohazard bags were buried separately. Some remains weren’t bagged at all.
The researchers were looking for unidentified remains of undocumented immigrants at Sacred Heart Burial Park in the city of Falfurrias. The number of bodies won’t be determined until the remains are examined in a lab, though Baylor University professor Lori Baker, who led the research team, believes they number in the dozens.
Baker leads Reuniting Families, a program dedicated to identifying the remains of undocumented immigrants and connecting them with family members, usually back in Mexico. Her team exhumed the remains of 110 unidentified people from the same cemetery last year.
The remains were originally handled by local funeral home Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams, which Brooks County has relied on for the past 16 years to bury bodies discovered in the area at a rate of $450 each. Streams of Mexican migrants cross the border and attempt the 30-mile journey through the county’s rough ranchlands in order to evade a checkpoint. Many end up succumbing to exposure, dehydration, or illness. Between 2011 and 2013, more than 300 people died crossing through Brooks County. Experts estimate that fewer than half of those who die are found.
“Over 6,000 remains have been found along the US-Mexico border since the mid-90s, when the current enforcement strategy began," Maryada Vallet, who works with the humanitarian organization No More Deaths, told VICE News. “It is a humanitarian crisis resulting from border policies that intend to use death as a deterrent for migration.”
“The deaths of these individuals are tragic and difficult on many levels,” a spokesperson for Service Corporation International, the Houston-based owner of Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams, said in a statement to VICE News concerning the recent discovery. “For years now, Howard-Williams Funeral Home has worked closely with federal and local officials to handle these situations. We believe that all human remains should be handled with dignity, care, and respect. We applaud the efforts to identify next-of-kin and repatriate remains where possible. However, it is an unfortunate reality that some percentage of these remains will simply be unidentifiable despite the best efforts of the Medical Examiner’s Office and others.”
“We have always been under budget constraints,” Brooks County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Benny Martinez told the Los Angeles Times. While most migrant deaths in Texas occur in Brooks County, according to a 2013 report from Houston United’s Prevention of Migrant Deaths Working Group, the federal government does not assist the county with immigration because it lies 70 miles from the border.
“Maybe there was no money to facilitate burying the bodies,” Martinez said.
He noted that he didn’t expect Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams to receive criminal charges, but at least two state lawmakers have called for a criminal investigation.
“There’s no question in one way or another that this is illegal, whether it violates the actual penal code or it if constitutes fraud,” State Representative Terry Canales told the AP.
Brooks County has taken steps to address the proliferation of unidentified migrant remains. Last year, after pressure from the Texas Civil Rights Project, which alleged that the county was not doing enough to correctly identify bodies, the county began sending them to a medical examiner in Webb County for an autopsy. The examiner uses fingerprints, DNA samples, and any identifying characteristics to try to find a match and return the body to relatives.
Eduardo Canales, principal organizer and director of the South Texas Human Rights Center, which also pressured Brooks County to change its policies, emphasized that this latest discovery of improperly buried remains should not diminish the county’s effort to improve its identification and burial policies.
“The county, at this stage right now, in terms of what it’s doing, doesn’t need to change,” Canales told VICE News. “The practices of the funeral home will be brought into question and corrective action taken, if any.”
Canales was also wary of the characterization of the discovery as a “mass grave.”
“It went viral and brought a lot of concern — now it’s sorted out, and we’ll move from there,” he said. “Things have already been corrected here by the county in terms of the processing.”
Earlier this month, Brooks County announced a partnership with a non-profit organization called Texas Border Rescue to establish the Brooks County Sheriff's Office Rescue Posse, which will help the county respond to emergency calls from migrants in need of help.
“The Rescue Posse allows the department to have a much more proactive response throughout Brooks County to these urgent calls for help as well as patrolling the routes where we most frequently see migrants who are in distress,” Martinez said in a statement announcing the initiative.
While such initiatives are certainly praiseworthy, federal funding and formal immigration reform might be the only effective solution to truly prevent the deaths of immigrants crossing the border.
Follow Jordan Larson on Twitter: @jalarsonist