Rising immigrant deaths burden Texas county

By the time the woman perished, she had probably slogged 25 miles through dry ranch lands in her quest to enter the United States. She was found a few feet from a highway where she might have been picked up and taken to Houston with other migrants making the same journey.

Not long ago, her body would have been taken to a funeral home for a cursory attempt at identification, then buried in this town an hour north of the Mexico border under a sign reading “unknown female.”

Her death, probably from hypothermia, is part of a mounting body count that has overwhelmed sparsely populated Brooks County and is providing further evidence that immigrants are shifting their routes away from the well-worn paths into Arizona and instead crossing into deep-southern Texas. The changing patterns have put an extra burden on local governments with limited experience in such matters and even fewer financial resources.

Brooks County is trying to step up to the challenge. Now, all newly recovered bodies and skeletal remains of suspected immigrants will be sent 90 miles to Webb County for autopsies, DNA sampling and more intensive efforts at identification.

It’s a monumental step for Brooks County, population about 7,100, where on a recent morning the chief deputy mopped the floors of the sheriff’s office himself. He will also be making the weekly trips to deliver corpses to the medical examiner in Laredo, the Webb County seat.

The county handled 129 bodies last year, which Judge Raul Ramirez, the county’s top administrator, says blew a hole in the budget. Before last year, the county averaged 50 to 60 dead a year.

Immigrants typically die in Brooks County trying to circumvent a Border Patrol checkpoint. They’re usually dropped off with guides south of the checkpoint and have to hike for two or three days to a pickup spot north of the checkpoint.

In the past, unidentified immigrants were crammed into the local cemetery without DNA samples being taken, and the cemetery did not have accurate records.

In May, Lori E. Baker, a Baylor University anthropologist, led a team to Falfurrias to dig up unidentified immigrants’ graves. She identified 54 marked graves but found 63 burials. In some cases, the team opened a body bag expecting to find one person and found four other sets of remains. Some of the remains carried tags indicating they came from a neighboring county. Baker plans to return for more exhumations next year.

She’s encouraged by the county’s progress, noting that the short-staffed sheriff’s office is going to start taking DNA samples from people who come looking for missing loved ones.

Three days before the woman was found on El Tule Ranch, manager Lavoyger Durham, 68, proudly showed off his contribution to addressing the problem: a 55-gallon blue plastic drum holding gallon water jugs. The water station is topped with a 30-foot pole and a large blue flag.

Durham said it was the first water station in Brooks County, and he has plans for several more. He would prefer that the government erect a double-layer border fence. But, in the meantime, he doesn’t want to see people continue to die on the ranch. He estimates he has found 25 bodies in the past 23 years.

“I’m trying to expose the killing fields of Brooks County,” Durham said. “If dead human beings don’t catch your attention, what . . . else is going to? We’re just trying to be human about it.”

Corinne Stern, the Webb County medical examiner, puts her office’s identification rate on nonskeletal remains at 65 to 70 percent. But the woman from the ranch remains a Jane Doe. Found on Aug. 26, the body was in an advanced stage of decomposition.

But there are clues. She was wearing earrings and a ring on the middle finger of her left hand. She wore a Gold’s Gym T-shirt and pink Converse sneakers with pink laces. She carried several phone numbers, but they have not yielded information yet.

Tucked into one pocket of her shorts was a photo of a boy about age 5. He’s wearing a suit and what appears to be a graduation cap.

— Associated Press

“If dead human beings don’t catch your attention, what the hell else is going to?”

Lavoyger Durham, ranch manager

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