In a border graveyard, volunteers exhume migrants’ bodies and search for their families
In Maverick County, 26 bodies pulled from the Rio Grande were buried, some without attempts to identify them. Teams of Texas State students are trying to learn their names so their families can be notified.
Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
EAGLE PASS — Victoria Soto stood at the bottom of a grave earlier this month and carefully scratched dirt from the edges of a body bag, then scooped it into a bucket held by Amelia Konda, a Texas State University classmate. Behind them, two other students used a dustpan to loosen the dirt around another body bag.
With the sunrise painting the sky orange, the forensic anthropology students lifted three soil-covered body bags and carried them to a nearby tent. When Soto and classmate Stephanie Baker unzipped one of the body bags, the body was unrecognizable and produced a sulfur smell that they’d grown used to during days of exhuming the bodies of migrants in this border city.
Soto and Baker gently examined the body, looking for clues to the man’s identity: clothing, an ID card, tattoos, distinctive dental work.
After they finished, Soto, 23, silently addressed the anonymous migrant: Thank you for letting me handle you today and do what I have to do. I’m going to do everything I can to get you where you belong.
“I think it’s important to show them the respect they may have not been shown before,” she said.
Twenty-six migrants, including a baby, were buried here in August and September after local authorities found their bodies last summer in the Rio Grande. They would have likely remained unidentified at the Maverick County Cemetery if the Texas State students, working with the South Texas Human Rights Center, hadn’t arrived in November to begin exhuming their bodies.
According to state law, a justice of the peace should have ordered a DNA sample to be collected and have the information stored in a federal database to later locate the migrants’ relatives. But in August, with migrant deaths spiking along the border, the Webb County Medical Examiner’s Office — which performs autopsies for Maverick and 10 other nearby counties — asked local funeral homes to hold the bodies until the office had space for them, Medical Examiner Corinne Stern told CNN in an August interview.
When a local funeral home in Eagle Pass also hit its holding capacity, it buried the bodies in a corner of the cemetery, marking them with crosses made from PVC pipe.
Some of the bodies the students exhumed during their first visit in November had ID cards or passports on them, the students said. One justice of peace contacted some of the relatives but the county buried the bodies because the funeral home had run out of space to hold them, said Kate Spradley, an anthropology professor at Texas State University who in 2013 founded Operation Identification, a project in which her anthropology students and volunteers help identify the remains of migrants who died while crossing the border.
“Why did things fall through the cracks?” said Eddie Canales, the director of the South Texas Human Rights Center, an advocacy group that helps families find the remains of loved ones who died crossing the border and has helped fund the exhumations in Eagle Pass. “Is it because they’re immigrants and they get unequal treatment? Or is it just a lack of resources?”
The number of migrants dying at the U.S.-Mexico border has reached record highs. The U.S. Border Patrol reported finding 853 bodies in the 2022 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, more than triple the 247 found in the 2020 fiscal year. Many migrants died from heat or lack of water trying to cross the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts or — like those buried in Maverick County — drowned attempting to cross the Rio Grande.
At the same time, the number of migrant apprehensions at the southern border by immigration agents hit a record 2.4 million in the 2022 fiscal year, part of a yearslong increase in migrant crossings at the southern border.
Canales and Adam Isacson, a regional security expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, said that deterrence policies such as Title 42 — an emergency health order invoked by the Trump administration in March 2020 to quickly expel migrants without allowing them to claim asylum — have pushed migrants to take more risks to enter the country, leading to more deaths.
Surrendering to Border Patrol agents and claiming asylum is “not an option for them because of Title 42,” Isacson said. “So more of them are probably trying to avoid detection, and that means going through some dangerous areas.”
In Maverick County, sheriff’s deputies or Border Patrol agents typically report finding one body to five bodies a year. But last summer, the county found 30 bodies a month on average, Spradley said.
“It’s a mass disaster that exceeds local resources,” Spradley said.
In the past decade, the Texas State students and volunteers have received or exhumed the remains of more than 450 unidentified migrants, mostly from Brooks County. They take the bodies to a lab at the university in San Marcos, where they collect a DNA sample and store the bodies. They also search missing person reports and try to match the descriptions to clothing or identifying features on the bodies.
If they locate a migrant’s family, they will also help repatriate the body to their home country.
Texas counties spend thousands to identify migrants
When local law enforcement or Border Patrol agents find the body of a migrant, they’ll call a local justice of the peace, who has the option of requesting an autopsy to determine a cause of death.
If no one claims the body and it can’t be identified, state law requires the justice of the peace to order a medical examiner to collect a DNA sample. A local funeral home will hold the body until it’s transferred to a medical examiner’s office.
Like a majority of Texas’ 254 counties, Maverick County doesn’t have a medical examiner who can perform autopsies, so the county relies on the medical examiners in San Antonio or Laredo.
The Texas State students said two of the bodies they exhumed earlier this month had what appeared to be incisions on their head and chest from an autopsy, but it’s unclear which medical examiner performed the autopsies or whether DNA samples were taken.
It’s also unclear whether the Webb County Medical Examiner’s Office is now accepting migrant bodies — the office didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
Last summer, the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office in San Antonio was still dealing with the aftermath of two separate mass casualty events — the May 24 murder of 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, followed by the June deaths of 53 migrants who suffocated inside an 18-wheeler used to smuggle them into the country.
The process of trying to identify missing migrants costs thousands per case. From the discovery of a body to the burial, counties spend an average of $13,100 per case, according to a May 2020 University of Texas report titled “Migrant Deaths in South Texas.” Some border counties have taken shortcuts to reduce that cost, the report says.
From 2009 to 2013, more than 350 bodies were discovered in Brooks County, a major migrant transit route north of the Texas-Mexico border. The county, which has only about 7,000 residents, spent $628,000 processing the bodies, the report says. To save money, the county didn’t order autopsies, and a local cemetery buried them in unmarked graves without recording their locations, according to the UT report.
“These migrants often had little chance of being identified and repatriated to their countries,” the report says. But in 2013, the county began to receive state funding to conduct autopsies and “now routinely orders autopsies and keeps some of the most detailed migrant death records in the region,” the report says.
“The earth swallowed him”
Some remains can go unidentified for years, leaving families in limbo, not knowing whether their loved ones are still alive. Some families call the South Texas Human Rights Center’s missing migrants hotline.
Canales, the center’s director, said he recently got a text from a woman in Guanajuato, Mexico, to ask for help finding her father, who went missing in 1990 after crossing the border into Texas. Canales said he would ask Border Patrol for any reports and check the Texas State lab’s records to see if they have any DNA from the man.
“I want to give her hope, but in reality, se lo trago la tierra (the earth swallowed him),” he said. “It’s heart-wrenching, but I haven’t gotten cold to it because I need to give the family some hope.”
Spradley said for the past seven years, Operation Identification has received about $115,000 annuallyin grant money from the governor’s office to help fund the exhumation of bodies. But this year, the state ended that financial support, she said.
In recent years, Gov. Greg Abbott, who has been critical of President Joe Biden’s immigration policies, has focused on attempting to deter migrants from crossing the border, ordering hundreds of National Guard soldiers and state troopers to border counties to apprehend migrants crossing the border. Hundreds of migrants have been charged with misdemeanor trespassing and are being held in prison. The state has spent more than $4 billion on the effort since Abbott launched Operation Lone Star in March 2021.
Andrew Mahaleris, a spokesperson for Abbott, said in an email that counties that receive grants from Operation Lone Star can use that money to pay for Operation Identification’s help with exhuming and identifying bodies.
Inside the makeshift tent where the students examined the bodies, Chloe McDaneld, the laboratory manager at Texas State where the bodies will be taken for further examination, took photos and asked Konda — who was serving as the notetaker — to note the man’s short black hair and the autopsy incisions to the skull and chest.
Meanwhile, Soto — wearing a plastic medical gown, latex gloves duct-taped around her wrists and a blue surgical mask — wiped dirt from the dead man’s right arm.
“I’m looking to see if he had any tattoos,” Soto said.
Baker shifted the broken skull as Soto wiped decomposed skin from the teeth to gather dental records. When they finished, the students zipped up the body bag, and Don White, a volunteer at the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office, helped them carry the body to a truck that will transport the bodies to the university’s lab.
White, who has volunteered with the sheriff’s office for years, said he often goes out to the desert to look for migrants and also helps Operation Identification’s efforts.
“This isn’t about politics; this is all humanity. It’s for the families,” he said. “So the families have their loved ones back so they can bury them in a place of their choosing. So they can go on Sundays and visit them or so they can do the Day of the Dead celebrations. If they don’t have the bodies, they can’t do any of that.”
The work is also personal for Soto. She’s a first-generation U.S. citizen whose father would cross the desert or the river from Mexico into the U.S. to work as a day laborer and send money back home to his family. Eventually, he settled in Houston, and his wife and two daughters followed him. Soto, his third child, was born there.
She remembers hearing stories of her parents’ friends who died in the desert as they tried to emigrate from Mexico. It’s a big reason that she decided to study forensic anthropology.
“Even in death, people are marginalized,” she said. “It’s not easy work, but it’s work that needs to be done. I know that this easily could have been someone in my family.”
Trey Lopez contributed to this story.
Your New Year’s resolution list isn’t complete without …
… supporting the Tribune. This new year, resolve to do your part to sustain trusted journalism in Texas. Join thousands of readers who power The Texas Tribune’s nonprofit newsroom.