In the past four years, Texas has earned a new reigning title as the border state with the highest number of border-crosser deaths per year. According to “Searching for the Living, the Dead, and the New Disappeared on the Migrant Trail in Texas: Preliminary Report on Migrant Deaths in South Texas,” published by the Texas Civil Rights Project in 2013, the number of attempts to cross the border have decreased, yet the number of migrant deaths have increased at an alarming rate. In their report, the Texas Civil Rights Project reported five key findings:
1. Recorded deaths in Texas are at an all-time high
2. The southern border is becoming more deadly
3. Migrant deaths in Texas are concentrated in Brooks County where 129 migrant bodies were
recovered last year (2012)
4. The deaths in South Texas result from a series of policies that extend well beyond the region
5. DNA testing, as required by Texas State Law for all unidentified remains, is not being carried
out in a standardized and coordinated manner to identify the dead.
ONE: Recorded deaths in Texas are at an all-time high
…Yet, the numbers are probably a lot higher than we think. Of the 463 recorded total number of border deaths in 2012, 271 of those deaths were reported in Texas. According to the Texas Civil Rights Project, the number of deaths in the Rio Grande Sector more than doubled in a single year from 2011 to 2012. These deaths have been attributed to the harsh desert terrain that migrants must survive in order to “safely” enter the country undetected. These areas tend to be extremely isolated and void of clean sources of water. The extreme isolation of these areas and the climate in Texas attribute to the rapid decomposition of human remains, and it is possible that many remains are never recovered due to animal activity and bone scattering.
TWO: The southern border is becoming more deadly
Though the number of migrants crossing the border is declining, the harsh conditions are causing an increase in the number of deaths. Stricter immigration laws are adding to the perilous nature of the southern border. As the number of ports of entry have decreased, and as border security has become more militarized, the journey that migrants must take to cross the U.S.-Mexico border have turned much more dangerous and isolated. Migrants are at risk of dying due to dehydration or fatigue, but are also at risk for injury, in which they may be left behind by their “guides” or “coyotes.”
THREE: Migrant deaths in Texas are concentrated in Brooks County where 129 migrant bodies were recovered last year (2012)
Due to a Customs and Border Patrol Checkpoint in Falfurrias, located in Brooks County, a large number of deaths are occurring in other areas of the county as migrants attempt to avoid the checkpoint by crossing desert terrain. As the number of migrant deaths increase in Brooks County in the present, those long-term unidentified cases must also be considered. These long-term cases prove to be difficult to solve because of the lack of information available from the lack of protocol control in previous years, as well as the structured nature of the Texas Criminal Code of Procedures. Since information can only be entered into governmental databases associated with the United States, potential matches could be missed as the information is not cross-referenced with databases associated with non-governmental organizations and human rights groups who have taken the time to collect testimonies from families and friends looking for their missing loved ones.
FOUR: The deaths in South Texas result from a series of policies that extend well beyond the region
As is similar in the United States, economic reforms in Mexico and Central America are also making it increasingly difficult to make a living. The gap between the upper and lower economic strata is widening, causing many to migrate in an attempt to earn better wages to support their families. Even with this reality, the majority of border crossers are not, in fact, risking their lives for economic gain. Many are those who were previously deported, or have family already in the United States who they would like to reunite with. The recent criminalization of illegal migrants and increased deportation of them has greatly affected the number of deaths in the border states. Unbeknownst to many, the process of legal migration into the United States is quite difficult – especially for those applying from Mexico or other Central American countries. The number of applicants for a green card per year far exceeds the number allotted per country by the United States. This causes a sense of desperation for those whose entire families remain in the United States. Only the most desperate of situations could possibly force someone to consider embarking on a dangerous journey and risking their lives to move to a new environment in which they may not speak the language, or be treated as an equal.
FIVE: DNA testing, as required by Texas State Law for all unidentified remains, is not being carried out in a standardized and coordinated manner to identify the dead.
The Texas Criminal Code of Procedures §49.04 states that:
“(a) A justice of the peace shall conduct an inquest into the death of a person who dies in the county served by the justice if:…(3) the body or a body part of a person is found, the cause or circumstances of the death are unknown, and (B) the person is unidentified;…(d) A justice of the peace investigating a death described by Subsection (a) (3) (B) shall report the death to the missing children and missing persons information clearinghouse of the Department of Public Safety and the national crime information center not later than the 10th working day after the date the investigation began.”
Even with these laws in place, the statistics of the number of migrant deaths are obscure and proper records are not well-maintained for these cases. In 2013, a new process in which justices of the peace would begin to treat cases equal regardless of the nationality of the decedent was put into place. All individuals would be sent to a medical examiner’s office to be processed and autopsied. The information gathered are entered into NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System), and DNA samples are sent to the University of North Texas to be included in the CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) database. Previously, it was established that the remains of “foreign nationals” would be sent directly to funeral homes to be autopsied and identified. While some cases were retained for positive identification and repatriation, others were simply buried in local cemeteries. Limited information was retained for these cases, plot numbers were not recorded, information was not entered into NamUS, and DNA samples were not collected, nor submitted to the University of North Texas’s Center for Human Identification. All of the above listed processes are supposed to be conducted in accordance with Section 49.04 of the Texas Criminal Code of Procedures, yet they were never regulated or reinforced.
In response to the 2013 report released by the Texas Civil Rights Project, certain initiatives have been instated in an attempt to not only reduce the number of migrant deaths that occur in border states, but also to establish better protocols for handling migrant deaths. The Rio Grande Identification Project, which was established by the Texas Forensic Science Commission, is a direct response to the growing number of unidentified remains of migrants found near the Texas border. The goal of the project is to “develop a systematic plan for proper forensic evidence collection of biological material that may help identify the individuals found along the border.” The University of North Texas Center for Human Identification maintains a Texas Missing Persons DNA Database in their Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology. In a collaboration with Texas State University, Baylor University, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Office of the Governor, the FBI, human rights advocacy groups, and local law enforcement partners, the Center is to establish concrete protocols for the “collection and testing of forensic evidence related to unidentified remains currently awaiting anthropological exams and unidentified remains that may be discovered in the future.” With the collaboration of so many diverse groups all concerned with migrants, the Rio Grande Identification Project will hopefully aid in the streamlining of evidence collection and analysis. If the established protocol is then followed, this will ideally lead to a greater number of positive identifications and the repatriation of many more unidentified border crossers.