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Border Deaths in Texas: No Effort Made to Bury Deceased Migrants With Dignity

On Saturday, May 18, a small group of people from Houston Unido, a coalition of community-based organizations and activists working to promote immigrant rights, traveled to Falfurrias, Texas to participate in a community forum on migrant deaths. Last year, 129 migrants perished while crossing the harsh, desert brush near Falfurrias as they attempted to walk around the Border Patrol Checkpoint.

On May 19, 2013 the exhumations of 55 pauper graves in the Sacred Heart Cemetery of Falfurrias began.  The graves were marked with small metal plaques reading “unknown remains,” “unknown male, King Ranch,” “unknown person,” yet these migrants were known and loved by families, friends, and communities. Brooks County contracted on a temporary basis with a group of Baylor forensic scientists, including Dr. Lori Baker, for exhumations in order to begin DNA analysis of bodies. As the exhumations began, we paused at the graves to read the Prayer of Migrants to Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker in both English and Spanish. Rafael Hernandez of Desert Angels prayed that the families of missing migrants might find some peace in knowing what had happened to their loved ones.

The following is a summary of a report on migrant deaths in Texas written by Christine Kovic in collaboration with Houston Unido’s Prevention of Migrant Deaths Working Group. Houston Unido has been working to prevent border deaths, stop depor-tations and detentions, and achieve an immigration reform that allows workers to migrate without being criminalized.

Thousands of men, women, and children have died in their attempts to cross the U.S.-Mexico border since 1994. Official numbers from U.S. Department of Homeland Security place the total number of border deaths at around 5,000 since 1998, and other estimates place the number near 7,500. Death of border crossers is a known outcome of migration enforcement and has a long history. In the past decade, border deaths have increased dramatically as enforcement policies have intentionally pushed migrants to cross in isolated and dangerous terrain, particularly the Ari-zona desert. Most recently, migrants are dying in large numbers in South Texas as they attempt to cross the harsh desert brush.

Recorded deaths of border crossers in Texas are at an all-time high. Official statistics from the U.S. Border Patrol, a partial accounting of border deaths, document a total 271 deaths for the fiscal year of 2012, the first time that migrant deaths in Texas comprised the majority of deaths for border states.  These deaths are taking place as the number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border is declining meaning that the southern border is becoming more deadly. At this time, migrant deaths in Texas are concentrated in Brooks County, a territory with a small population located 70-miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Last year, 129 migrant bodies were recovered in this county, more than double the figure for the previous year, and 47 of these bodies are unidentified. The deaths in South Texas result from a series of policies that extend well beyond the region. These policies include economic reforms that cause emigration from Mexico and Central America, U.S. border enforcement policies, depor-tation and the criminalization of migrants in the U.S., and the limited possibilities for large groups of migrants to enter the nation legally.

Adding to the complexity and tragedy of the loss of life, 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. Family members who have contacted Houston Unido learned that DNA samples had not been taken of unidentified bodies that they suspected were their lost loved ones.

At a time when the U.S. Congress is engaged in a legislative effort to advance immigration reform, but with continued emphasis on enforcement and militarizetion of the U.S.–Mexico border, these deaths represent one tragic impact of crimi-nalization and deportation policies. As policymakers are counting votes to see if they can approve continuation of failed policies, in Texas we are counting bodies. Migrant deaths are the metrics of a “secured” border.

Christine Kovic is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Cross-Cultural Studies at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. 


Houston Catholic Worker, June-August 2013, Vol. XXXIV, No. 3.