The state’s forensic science oversight panel will convene in Austin on Wednesday to give the public a progress report on an emotional and macabre issue that is tied directly to the hot-button issue of illegal immigration.
On the agenda for the nine-member Forensic Science Commission is a discussion about the state’s effort to improve "the collection and preservation of biological and other forensic evidence for identification of remains found within 120 miles" of the Rio Grande. The discussion comes amid concerns that the bodies of undocumented immigrants are buried without their families in foreign countries being notified that their loved ones have died.
Since 2010, the remains of hundreds of bodies have been found in counties that are on, or near, the Texas-Mexico border. The bodies are believed to be those of undocumented immigrants who have died in the border region's unforgiving terrain. The migrants often get lost or are abandoned by their smugglers while attempting to circumvent U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints.
“If skeletal remains are either buried or disposed of without sampling, that’s obviously a major problem; they are never going to be identified,” said commission member Sheree Robyn Hughes-Stamm, an assistant professor of forensic science at Sam Houston State University.
The issue made national news after cemetery officials in Brooks County were accused of improperly burying the remains of dozens of undocumented immigrants. Several bodies were buried together in plastic bags while other body parts were simply wedged between coffins, the Texas Observer reported in 2015.
In 2015, state lawmakers amended a forensic licensing bill and charged the commission with implementing a plan to streamline the process to be able to identify some of the remains. The result was the establishment of the Rio Grande Identification Project, which built on the state’s existing relationship with the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification.
The unit now combines efforts from Texas State University, Baylor University, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the governor’s office, the FBI, human rights groups and local law enforcement agencies. The goal is to improve how the agencies cross-reference biological material and work with foreign partners to be able to identify more remains.
The Brooks County controversy made the rest of the state aware of the problem. But for law enforcement, property owners and immigrant rights groups on or near the border, the issue is nothing new.
From January 2010 through June 2015, the remains of about 400 unidentified bodies were submitted to the UNT Center for Human Identification from the 32 counties the Texas Department of State Health Services considers “border” counties. (The designation applies to counties that are 100 kilometers from the Rio Grande.) Of those, 92 came from Brooks County and 93 from Webb County. Hidalgo and Kenedy counties had the third- and fourth-most, with 67 and 36 submissions, respectively. More than 25 percent of the submissions, 111, were sent in 2014 — the year the surge of illegal immigration from Central America began.
One of the biggest hurdles is having a medical examiner or other forensic expert on hand to ensure that the remains get tested, Hughes-Stamm said.
“Brooks County has done a very good job of ensuring that [tests are performed] because we have a forensic pathologist or [medical examiner] in that district,” she said. “However in some areas where we have a [justice of the peace] jurisdiction, that doesn’t always occur.”
Another roadblock she described is officials’ access to reference samples — genetic material provided by family members of those lost to help establish a tie between them and the deceased. The problem there is twofold: Some reference samples gathered in the United States aren’t collected. The other is the regulations that govern collections in foreign countries.
“The ones that are collected overseas currently do not [meet] the requirements the FBI require to be uploaded to our database here,” she said. “So we want to solve that going forward.”
Wednesday's meeting comes as the federal government's fiscal year recently came to a close at the end of September. After a lull in the number of unaccompanied minors and family units that entered illegally in 2015, the numbers from 2016 reflect a significant increase. From October 2015 through the end of August 2016, 33,180 unaccompanied children were apprehended or surrendered to U.S. Border Patrol in the agency's Rio Grande Valley sector. That's compared with 21,130 during the same time period in the 2015 fiscal year.
Read some of our related coverage:
- The Texas Supreme Court could rule this month in a case that that is likely to weigh in on the rights of private-property owners whose lands are traversed by undocumented immigrants
- U.S. Sen. John Cornyn has released a new video and an accompanying opinion piece describing the hundreds of migrants found dead every year near the Texas-Mexico border. But advocacy groups say Cornyn is part of the problem.