Manuel Roig-Franzia in Washington contributed to this report.
The man had been found two nights before on the brushland of a South Texas ranch, miles from the nearest sign of civilization, which was the back of a Walmart. The Border Patrol agent who spotted him didn’t know how long the young man had been walking before he collapsed and died, and neither did Corinne Stern, the Webb County medical examiner on whose autopsy table he now lay.
He’d been carrying a backpack. The backpack would be how Stern began to piece together who the man was and how she could send him back to his family, and so, early on a Sunday morning, her assistant lined up its contents, item by item. A bottle of water, mostly empty. A cellphone, protected by a passcode. A wallet, which meant nothing: Sometimes the people who entered the country by swimming and hiking across its border did so while carrying other people’s identification. A bag of corn chips, a can of tuna fish, a crumpled receipt. On his compact body, denim pants and a dark shirt.
Scattered remains (Above)
In one 10-county swath of Texas, more than 100 migrants have died this year trying to enter the United States. Here, Webb County Sheriff's Deputy Mauro Lopez reaches for a human skull found alongside a ranch road in the South Texas city of Laredo.
“It looks like he did a money exchange on October 4th,” Stern said to the assistant, Gilberto Ramos, as she examined the receipt. “For $140.” She scanned the man’s clothing. “The shoes are pretty generic; we won’t be able to use them. What brand were his jeans?”
“Levi,” Ramos said.
“A lot of his belongings come from the U.S., so chances are this might not have been his first time trying to cross,” Stern said, and then they were interrupted by the sound of a ringing telephone.
Ramos looked toward the landline, but it was silent. “Is that my cell?” Stern asked him. It wasn’t. “Is it yours?” she asked. Ramos shook his head.
They both looked toward the sound and the counter that held the backpack, where the dead man’s phone was ringing.
An ending and a beginning
A sheriff’s deputy stands over a body found by a ranch hand as he inspected fencing in Laredo. The remains next go to the Webb County medical examiner’s office, where fingerprints, DNA testing and other techniques are used to identify the border crosser.
Laredo. This was a sprawling city of a quarter-million people, with an old downtown and new shopping plazas, old casitas and new McMansions — a city whose western boundary was formed by the Mexican border, which was currently protected by turnstiles on a chaotic highway, and which Donald Trump had insisted should instead be protected by a wall.
Laredo was where Stern had arrived a decade before to become the county’s medical examiner, and where her offices were located at the end of a dusty, unmarked road. Once a month, she gathered her staff for a meeting to discuss the issue that took up more than a third of their time: identifying the people who died trying to cross the border into the United States and sending their remains home. It was her belief that burial was the way to honor that a person had existed. “That he had walked on this Earth,” she sometimes said. Burial was the acknowledgment of universal human dignity, she believed, and the physical location of a family’s grief.
“Okay, let’s start,” she said at October’s meeting, a few days before her Sunday morning autopsy. Stern crossed one cowboy-booted foot over the other and turned to the first page in a packet labeled “Decedent List As Of October 7, 2016.” It was divided into categories: whether the decedents were now in the morgue in her office or at the forensic anthropologist’s office; whether the remains had been intact or skeletal. It was six pages, single-spaced. It was too long, and, despite Stern’s having devised strategies that gave her an identification success rate of about 75 percent, it never seemed to get any shorter.
Immigration had become a flash point of the presidential election, a flurry of numbers with consequences often in dispute. In fiscal 2015, by the Department of Homeland Security’s count, about 331,000 people had been apprehended as they tried to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, a drop-off from the year before. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, Border Patrol agents had apprehended nearly 409,000. Many were released to await hearings for asylum, which can take months or years.
Stern, 50, didn’t consider herself to be a political person, and her job was not to think about the thousands of people who crossed every year in search of new beginnings. Her job was to think about the people who didn’t make it, who drowned in rivers or dropped to the ground from dehydration or from the temperatures that soared past 110 degrees.
Her job was to think about endings.
A voice for the dead
Corinne Stern, Webb County’s chief medical examiner, thinks of the people who cross her autopsy table as silent patients who need her help to reach a final destination. Here, she and autopsy technician Mateo Arredondo examine the skeletal remains of a border crosser.
Last year, the total number of border crossers who died and arrived in her office had been 105 — more than any other jurisdiction from Texas to the Pacific Ocean. This year, her office had reached that number by the first day in October.
The tally for the calendar year was written on the whiteboard in her autopsy room: “Crossers: 105,” in red marker.
Stern knew it was only a matter of time before she received the call telling her that someone had found border crosser 106.
“Last year was busy, this year was worse,” she’d been telling people throughout the week. She hadn’t taken a vacation in half a decade; a couple of years ago, she’d finally petitioned the county commissioners to let her cash out 169 hours of leave time she knew she’d never use. Just this week, she had tried to take a day of rest for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. She’d celebrated by phoning her grown son, who had recently moved to Israel, but ended up back at her desk before the day was through.
“What’s the status here?” she asked at the staff meeting, pulling her red hair into a ponytail and pointing to a few case numbers on the list of decedents. A staff member explained that the remains, sent for DNA testing to a forensic anthropologist at the University of North Texas, had been identified but not yet sent back to the crossers’ home countries.
“He’s ID’d, so he doesn’t need to be sitting around on an anthropologist’s table,” Stern said. “He needs to be buried.”
“But once they’re at that office — ” a member of her staff began.
“They need to be buried,” Stern interrupted.
“Well,” the staffer started.
“Even if they’re getting an indigent burial. I don’t want them sitting on a shelf somewhere. They need to be buried,” she said.
Clues to a life
Border crossers are sometimes found with wallets and passports, other times with only phone numbers on scraps of paper, or nothing at all. An autopsy technician tries to decipher a love letter, written in English, found in one man’s pocket. Only the last line was legible: “I can’t wait for you to hold me again.”
The most recent crosser, 105, had been found in Maverick County, no ID, no fingerprint match, and his DNA had been sent for testing. The 104th crosser was identified quickly: a 41-year-old from Mexico whose family was working with the consulate to bring home his remains. The 103 crossers who had come before them had their own sad endings or non-endings. There was a man whose entire family lived in North Carolina, who had been trying to travel to join them, and instead of a welcome party they ended up having a funeral with an urn of ashes. There was another man who was found with nothing but a roll of U.S. bills, all $100s, and a love letter in English that was too decomposed to read much of except for the last line, “I can’t wait for you to hold me again.”
Stern had learned to gently slice open the denim pockets of border crossers’ jeans, easing out waterlogged scraps of paper without tearing them: Sometimes people were identified based on scrawled phone numbers. She had learned to X-ray every patient who came in, searching for steel plates or oddly set bones, or other anomalies that could be compared to X-rays of missing people.
She had seen crossers come in with not a single identifying characteristic, and when she looked at them, she thought, “What is the population of the entire world?” because those were the odds she was dealing with: The person on her table was one of 7 billion people, and by the grace of fate that person was now lying before her and not a single one of their loved ones knew it yet.
She had far too many opportunities to reflect on this, because over the past several years, Stern had taken over the work for nine surrounding counties, a total area of 17,000 square miles.
Earlier in the week, an officer from the Honduran Consulate had brought a pile of manila folders — her own never-ending list — to Stern’s office to see whether any outstanding missing-persons cases matched people the doctor had recently identified.
The consul, Lilian Gomez, held up a picture of a young, dark-haired woman. “Her brother is calling us every week to ask if you have the DNA results.”
The brother had seen a picture of a body on a Facebook page that aimed to identify missing migrants and become convinced the dead woman was his sister.
“It’s not her,” Stern said, comparing the two pictures. She sighed and shook her head. “This person is much older. The nose is different. The ears are different. One has curly hair and one has straight.” Stern knew the two photos didn’t match, and she also knew that grief did funny things to people’s minds.
They moved on to another case, and another. After two hours, Gomez picked up the last folder and stared at it for a moment. “This one — this one I don’t know what to do with,” she said.
“We still have him here?” asked Stern.
“Yes.” Gomez explained: The case had dragged on for months. A crosser brought to Stern’s office matched the description of a missing Honduran man. The dental records showed a match, but the family wanted more proof. Stern brought in a forensic dentist who told them the match was beyond question. The family still didn’t believe their son could be dead, and so they were refusing to claim his remains.
“I am a Christian, I do believe in spiritual things,” Gomez said. “But the family called a lady in California.”
“A psychic?” Stern asked.
“They called a psychic. She tells them, your son is still alive. He is working on a ranch with 20 other people.”
Stern shook her head. “But if that was the case, why wouldn’t he call them?”
“Yes, exactly,” Gomez said.
Stern told Gomez that she wanted to be able to send him home. But she understood that hope also did funny things to people. In the face of relentless sadness, a family might choose to believe something that went against the facts of the situation. They talked about giving the family more time. “I can give them closure,” she said to Gomez, finally. “But I take away their hope.”
Waiting to go home
The unidentified border crossers’ remains are kept at the Webb County medical examiner’s office in a building that has become so crowded that portable morgues have been set up outside.
The office had been filled with a sense of relief at the beginning of the week; during slow periods, the staff could finally catch up on paperwork. That turned into anxious anticipation toward the end, and one of the assistants had taken to whispering, “They found a crosser?” every time the phone rang.
Late Friday, a county worker dropped by just before closing and asked whether the week had been hectic.
“Just so you know, our number this year is 105 and our numbers, total, last year were 105,” Stern answered. “And last year between October 1st and December, there were 25 crossers. This year it’s been really hot. We’re going to get to 106.”
Stern got in her white truck and drove home to the ranch where she lived alone — a red barn house with stables where she kept goats and horses. She checked in on her pregnant mare, and she fed her dogs, and she stopped to pet her favorite goat, which had recently given birth at the advanced age of 13.
Texas was her home, and living on a ranch, with nothing to interfere with the dark, starry skies, felt right to her. She’d grown up in the state, the daughter of a World War II hero, and while she’d tried living other places after medical school, she knew she wanted to come back to Texas and she knew she wanted to be a medical examiner.
It was her father’s idea. He’d become a psychiatrist, spending 25 years working at veterans hospitals and easing serviceman after serviceman through the horrors of post-traumatic stress disorder. She’d wanted to do what he did, but when she told him that as a young girl, he said, in his frank way, “I don’t think you’d be a good psychiatrist. I think you would be a good forensic pathologist.” She didn’t ask him why, but she sensed that maybe he wanted to spare her the pain that could sometimes accompany working with the living.
Corinne Stern, who has been Webb County’s chief medical examiner for about a decade, views her work as a calling. “Once you lose compassion, you don’t need to be in this field,” she says. “It has to be something that’s a part of you.”
The nanny goat’s kid was stillborn. Stern had helped ease it out of its mother’s womb already knowing it was too late. And then the mother had lain there, unmoving, and Stern thought she would lose her, too. But hours later, she looked down and saw another pair of tiny hoofs emerging from the birth canal. Twins. Stern replayed that moment over and over, believing that surrounding herself by life was the only way to balance the fact that she was so often surrounded by death.
She finished up her evening chores and headed to a nearby ranch, where a family she knew had invited people over to watch a goat-roping competition.
“Daddy, it’s the doctor!” a small girl called to her father as soon as Stern arrived.
Everyone recognized the doctor. People in the city had gotten used to seeing her on television whenever there was a high-profile case, like a sensational murder, and they knew that if you were missing somebody you loved, then her office would try to help you find them. And there weren’t many Jewish women in Laredo — Stern was the only person she knew who kept kosher.
“Mirabeli! I brought some treats for you,” Stern said as the little girl climbed into her lap, and she handed her a paper bag filled with Chex Mix and Tostitos.
“C’mon, you can get him!” Stern yelled, making sure to cheer on the youngest, smallest boys in their sturdy jeans, trying their slender lassoes on the agitated goats. Just as she was beginning to relax for the weekend, her cellphone vibrated in her pocket.
“Hey, Jesse, what have you got?” she asked. She listened while a colleague from Brooks County described a situation and then immediately dialed Francisco Gonzalez, her office’s investigator on duty that weekend. “Jesse’s bringing in a crosser from Brooks County,” she told Gonzalez over the phone. She told him to go straight to the office to meet the car carrying the crosser and said she would be in first thing Sunday morning to perform an autopsy.
A man had been found in jeans and a backpack on a ranch behind a Walmart, and crosser 106 had arrived.
A sad homecoming
After the remains of border crossers are identified, they can be sent home. Here, a family in North Carolina holds a prayer service for their loved one, who had been deported to Mexico and was trying to rejoin them in the United States.
Letizia Sebastian and Enoc David Vásquez Valverde were both barely 20 when they met. He’d come to Oaxaca from a small, poor town on the western Mexican coast and gotten a job at the animal feed store where Letizia was working, and she thought he seemed humble and had kind eyes. They married at the courthouse, they moved into her family’s crowded house because they couldn’t afford their own place, and they had a baby girl, whom they named Zoe and dressed in pink.
The baby changed things. Enoc, now 21, wanted more for his daughter and more for their family. The couple wanted to move into their own apartment, but there was never enough work, paying never enough money. As 2016 passed, he started telling Letizia that he had friends in the United States who could help him find a job there. Finally, one day in late September she went with him to the bus station where he told her not to worry, that he was going to find them a better way of life.
The bus took him to Monterrey, a city in northern Mexico. He called her from there saying that he was staying in a hotel with some people he’d met; they would be there for four or five days until the coyote they had hired to guide them through the border said the conditions were right. A few days later they were, and at 6 p.m. on Oct. 6, Enoc sent a text telling her that tonight was the night they would cross.
Because they didn’t want to be detected, nobody in the group would be making any phone calls while they navigated the desert to the United States, he told her. The next time Letizia would hear from him, he said, would be when he’d reached the other side.
The unending journey
They come by raft and by foot, families and individuals from Central American countries crossing the Rio Grande into Texas. After a drop-off in 2015, the number of migrants apprehended crossing the U.S. border rose to more than 400,000 in the year ended Sept. 30. Many of those detained are asking for some type of asylum and are released from detention after a few days.
Less than 24 hours after Stern had received the call about crosser 106, she received two more. Crosser 107: skeletal remains, also found in Brooks County, possibly requiring DNA analysis to be identified. Crosser 108: a man found floating facedown in the Rio Grande. Less than 24 hours, and there were three more people added to her list, and three more families lacking endings.
The final one, 108, was in Webb County, Stern’s county, meaning that not only would she be responsible for his autopsy but she would also be responsible for retrieving his remains. On Saturday evening, she put on her scrubs and her tallest waterproof boots and drove past a mobile home park and a cluster of palm trees to an access point on the Rio Grande, where Mexico looked so close.
“Who usually picks up the body?” the Border Patrol agent asked when she got out of her truck and made her way down the steep riverbank.
“If it’s in the water, I’ll get in and do it myself,” she said.
“We can’t assist,” he warned her.
“I know you can’t. I’ll do it.” She got in the Border Patrol boat and told the investigator who had accompanied her to wait on the banks and to ready a body bag.
The man was bloated. He had begun to decompose. Stern and Gonzalez, her investigator, maneuvered the man into the body bag that had been donated in a grant by the governor’s office because the problem of dead border crossers had reached a state of urgency. Stern and Francisco each took two of the handles on the bag. They started carrying it up the steep riverbank. Their feet slipped. Their boots filled with mud. They started up again. They made sure not to let the bag touch the ground. They passed the bag containing the man who died in the river between the layers of barbed wire fence that protected the riverbank. They put him in their van.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Stern said to Gonzalez, and tomorrow came, and Stern was again at her table.
A pauper’s burial
The Webb County medical examiner’s office has an identification success rate of about 75 percent, but when the deceased cannot be identified, they are eventually buried in the pauper section of Laredo’s City Cemetery. Here, a burial site’s marker reads “John Doe.”
Now it was a little after 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning.
Crosser 106, the man who had been found behind the Walmart, was lying on her table. He was young, she could tell that. His face was round. His eyes were closed, and he looked as if he could have been asleep.
His phone was ringing.
Stern looked at it. She hesitated. “The problem is that neither of us speaks Spanish well enough to talk with the family,” she said to Ramos, her assistant. The phone stopped, and Stern went back to work, but a few minutes later it rang again.
She paused for just a moment before walking quickly over to the phone. “Hello?” she said. “¿ Hola? ¿Habla inglés?” On the other end, she heard a flurry of words in Spanish. “Do you have anyone there who habla inglés?” she asked. “Hello?”
She gave up and pressed the end-call button, but the phone immediately rang again. “Hello?” she said. “No hablo español bueno. Can you call back in 20 minutes? ¿ Veinte minutos?”
She hung up again. “I think that was his wife,” she told Ramos quietly.
She didn’t know whether the woman had understood her, but Gonzalez, who was fluent in Spanish, was scheduled to start his shift in 20 minutes. The phone rang again. She didn’t pick up. Five minutes later it rang again. Two minutes after that it rang again.
“She keeps calling back,” Stern said. “She keeps trying.”
Now the phone was ringing unceasingly as Stern photographed crosser 106 — his face, his body, any identifying details — and prepared him for an autopsy. She already suspected the cause of death to be dehydration.
The phone rang, Gonzalez arrived and Stern handed it to him.
“Tell them you are with Dr. Stern in the medical examiner’s office,” she told him, coaching him quietly on the right thing to say. “Tell them we found this phone on the body of a person who was recovered on a ranch in Brooks County, and ask if they are missing a family member.”
Several hundred miles away, the dead man’s parents sat in their home in Santo Domingo de Morelos, having just heard from their daughter-in-law that an English-speaking stranger had picked up their son’s phone.
Gonzalez translated Stern’s message to them. He cupped his hand over the mouthpiece to relay the answer. “The man says he is missing his son.”
Stern nodded. “Ask him when is the last time he saw his son.”
Gonzalez asked. “He says a few days ago.”
In the middle of the room, crosser 106 lay on the metal table. His clothing had been removed. He had been turned on his side.
“Ask him if he can describe any tattoos his son has,” she told Gonzalez.
“A scorpion,” Gonzalez responded.
On the man’s back, a scorpion curved around his shoulder blade, with a name that looked as if it could belong to a wife or girlfriend.
“With the name ‘Zoe,’ ” Gonzalez continued, listening to the father describe the tattoo on the other end. “Zoe is his little daughter.”
Stern had asked the questions in careful order, not wanting to alarm someone unnecessarily. But now there was really only one more question to ask. She searched for the Mexican identification card that had been found with crosser 106.
Enoc David Vásquez Valverde with his daughter, Zoe. (Family photo)
“Ask him what is his son’s name,” she said finally.
“¿ Como se llama su hijo?” Gonzalez asked. He turned to Stern and spoke slowly and clearly. “His son’s name is Enoc David Vásquez Valverde.”
She looked down at the card. “Tell them that unfortunately, we have his son here,” she said. Gonzalez did. The father accepted the news quietly, but he could hear the mother sobbing in the background.
Their son had been found, in the brushland, less than 24 hours after he had texted his wife that he was making the crossing.
“Tell him the Mexican Consulate will call him,” Stern said, explaining that it was the consulate who would help figure out how to send their son’s remains back to them.
Gonzalez hung up the phone. Stern finished her work, removed her gloves, began filling in papers. “Enoc David Vásquez Valverde,” she said, repeating the name Gonzalez had just given her, the one belonging to the man who had once been border crosser 106.
She had an ending. It was a sad one, but it was an ending and it was the best she could do.
Rejuvenation of life
Corinne Stern combats the weariness of her job by spending time with the animals she raises on her ranch. “I surround myself with life all the time,” she says. “It’s the only way.”