Migrant Deaths and the New Disappeared on the South Texas Border
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Migrant border deaths are at an all-time high in the state of Texas according to a new report. Over the past two decades thousands of men, women, and children have died attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Even as the number of migrants crossing the border falls, members of the U.S. Congress are pushing for an increase in border “security”, pouring more and more public money into the very enforcement policies that produce the deaths.
The causal link between the deaths of migrant men, women and children, and U.S. border security policies is recognized and in large part, intentional. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services designed a strategy of “Prevention-through-deterrence” that creates obstacles and difficulties to discourage undocumented immigration. Experts have demonstrated a “funnel effect” in which enforcement practices channel migrants toward dangerous and deadly regions, namely the Arizona and Texas desert.
The Border Patrol deterrence strategy states, “The prediction is that with traditional entry and smuggling routes disrupted, illegal traffic will be deterred, or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement”. The strategy was first issued in its 1994 Strategic Plan—not coincidentally the year the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into affect, causing a huge spike in migration out of rural Mexico toward the United States.
From Undocumented to Unidentified
The “obstacles” placed in the path of undocumented migrants include injury, illness and deaths. For immigrant families, the death of a loved one is often not even the end of this brutal journey, since many of the bodies found in the desert are unidentified and the migrants remain missing.
In Texas, DNA testing of recovered human remains is required by state law, but is not being carried out in a standardized and coordinated manner to identify the dead. Migrants have become the “new disappeared”, to use a term from the 1970s and 1980s to name those disappeared in the context of Civil Wars and repressive military regimes in Central and South America.
The current “disappeared” have been produced by a lethal mix of U.S. immigration policies and border enforcement and regional neoliberal economic policies such as NAFTA and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) that have displaced small-scale farmers and urban workers. As was the case for the disappeared of previous decades, without confirmation of their fate, families with limited resources continue to search often in vain for their loved ones.
In response to the rise in Texas border deaths, Houston Unido (a coalition of community organizations working on a broad defense of immigrant rights) recently released a report on the issue titled “Searching for the Living, the Dead, and the New Disappeared on the Migrant Trail in Texas”. Based on information gathered by Houston Unido, the Texas Civil Rights Project, Los Ángeles del Desierto, and Eddie Canales, among others, the report provides an overview of the causes of such deaths and recommendations to address this humanitarian crisis. The key goals of the report are to call attention to the crisis and to call on authorities to take action to prevent deaths.
In Texas, recorded deaths of border crossers hit an historic record last year. The U.S. Border Patrol reported 271 deaths for the state in the 2012 fiscal year, higher than all other states combined.
And these numbers tell only part of the story. Many remains are never found in the harsh terrain the migrants cross. Because of the low population density and thick desert foliage in Texas’s rural areas, bodies may not be located for days, weeks, or even months. Migrants travel in isolated areas in attempts to avoid detection, detention, and deportation. In addition, the Border Patrol has narrow criteria for classifying migrant deaths and may not include skeletal remains that are recovered or those that are found by local residents, other migrants, and humanitarian groups in the region. Migrant bodies recovered in Mexico, including the many who drown in the Rio Grande, are also excluded from the Border Patrol count.
A partial counting of the dead leads to a limited accounting for the costs of the “security policies” that produce such deaths. Chief Deputy Benny Martinez of Brooks County reports that the number of deaths were higher this June than they were at this point last year. Deaths are expected to increase as temperatures rise in the summer months.
Migrant deaths are rising despite the fact that the number of people attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border is falling. This means that the border is becoming more deadly. Migration from Mexico has declined significantly in recent years, mostly due to a downturn in the U.S. economy. Border Patrol apprehensions are the lowest in decades. The 340,252 apprehensions in 2011 represent the lowest number going back to 1971.
To obtain an approximate death rate for border-crossers, researchers at the University of Arizona calculate the number of migrant deaths per 100,000 Border Patrol apprehensions. The Border Patrol reports 463 migrant deaths for all border-states in 2012. This is the highest number on record with the exception of 2005, a year when the Border Patrol detained more than three times as many migrants than in 2012. In Pima County, Arizona, the Medical Examiner’s Office documented 147 migrant deaths per 100,000 Border Patrol Apprehensions in 2012. In the state of Texas, 152 migrants died per every 100,000 apprehensions. The death rate in Texas jumped 22% from 2011 to 2012 alone. The approximate death rate for 2012 is six times that of 2002.
More non-Mexican migrants, primarily Central Americans from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, are being apprehended at the southern border. While non-Mexican apprehensions represented just over 11% of the total for the Southwest Border for the Fiscal Year 2010, they reached 14% in 2011, and 26% in 2012. For the first time, the recorded number of non-Mexicans made up the majority (51%) of the migrants entering the Rio Grande Valley Sector in 2012, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. They also make up a significant and growing number of those entering other regions of the Texas border. These migrants have already suffered a long, exhausting, and dangerous journey across Mexico, in what has become a vertical border of more than 1,000-miles before they reach the U.S. border.
After nearly twenty years of intensified enforcement, a higher proportion of border crossers are perishing. With more border patrol agents, a fence, and new technologies including Black Hawk Helicopters, drones, and ground sensors migrants have been pushed away from populated, urban areas toward isolated regions. A recent series of articles in the New York Times points to a “shift” in migrant crossing toward South Texas as enforcement is intensified in Arizona. Yet as the U.S. Senate debates immigration reform, politicians are pushing for increased border security with no mention of the deaths caused by inhumane enforcement practices.
The rise in the number of border deaths must be placed in the broader context of the increasing criminalization of immigrants in the United States. To give one powerful example, deportations reached an all-time high in the 2012 fiscal year, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reporting over 400,000 deportations. While ICE emphasized that 55% of those deported were convicted criminals, this is a misleading affirmation since unauthorized re-entry after deportation is now classified as a felony. As a direct result of deportations, many are returned to their countries of origin even if they have lived and worked in the United States for decades.
These policies split families apart, separating thousands of parents from their citizen children. In a two year period from 2010 to 2012, over 200,000 deportations involved parents with children who were U.S.-citizens, as documented in a 2012 study by the Applied Research Center. A University of Arizona study of recent deportees found that one in four had children under 18 who were United States citizens. Not surprisingly, many deportees hope to return to their families, homes, and jobs in the United States. Not only are returning migrants at risk of detention, they also risk death in the return journey, as they must cross the U.S.-Mexico border in dangerous conditions to reach their families.
Added to the tragedy of the loss of life, in Texas without systematic DNA testing of all unidentified bodies, some migrant remains are buried in anonymous pauper graves. This means that family members cannot locate and bury the missing loved ones, or even know if they have died.
Brooks County, 70-miles north of the border holds the record for migrant deaths in Texas this past year. Based only on recovered remains, 129 migrants died there last year. The U.S. Border Patrol Falfurrias Checkpoint in Brooks Country is located along a corridor used by coyotes (smugglers) to transport migrants to Houston and other cities. To avoid the checkpoint, migrants must walk for miles in the harsh, desert brush. Stories from survivors of such crossings reveal that coyotes leave behind those who are injured, ill, or too tired to continue the journey. Similar to the way the nation of Mexico represents a vertical border that must be crossed by Central American migrants hoping to reach the United States, South Texas represents a vertical border, on a smaller scale. The Falfurrias Checkpoint is but one of many interior checkpoint, located miles from Mexico.
Rafael Hernández of Los Ángeles del Desierto (Desert Angels), a volunteer search and rescue group that has helped to locate migrants in the border region, began to receive calls last year from family members, friends, and others seeking lost loved ones in the Falfurrias region. Hernández is based in San Diego, but as the volume of calls about South Texas increased, he visited Houston on his way to Falfurrias. He explained his work and his concern about the missing at a meeting of Houston Unido. In Brooks County, Hernández learned that recovered migrant bodies were being sent to the Elizondo funeral home and eventually buried in the Sacred Heart Cemetery, some without DNA testing.
Searching for the Missing
On May 1, 2013, Houston Unido held a vigil for worker and immigrant rights to remember those who had died while crossing the border. People gathered in the east side of the city, in a historically Mexican American neighborhood near Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, and posted signs bearing the names of some of the “missing” and white crosses to remember those who had died. At the vigil, Marta Iraheta shared the story of her nephew and his friend, two young Salvadoran men, who disappeared in their journey across South Texas. She had pieced together his story from those who traveled with him.
“On June 29 [they] arrived in Reynosa, and on July 1 they began to walk in the desert. But my nephew’s friend was already dehydrated and found some water to drink. . . Suddenly, according to what one of the people who was with them told me, he simply collapsed and fell down and the coyote that was bringing them didn’t do anything, nothing more than look back to make sure he was dead. We think that they took his identification because he brought it and we haven’t heard anything since then.”
Her nephew continued walking but was injured in the journey and became dehydrated. Unable to walk further, he stayed on the trail, just minutes from the highway. On learning that her nephew was missing, Iraheta stated: “I felt like I was in hell.” She traveled with Rafael Hernández to South Texas, and searched in jails and among the dead, but could not locate her nephew.
One month later, Iraheta learned that the county “found a cadaver that was already only bones,” matching the description of her nephew. Two photos her nephew had carried were in the pants pocket. But when she arrived at the funeral home in Mission, Texas, she found out that the body purported to be her nephew had already been buried and that it would cost thousands of dollars to exhume the corpse and conduct DNA testing.
Iraheta’s case is one of many. Last year, 47 of the 129 recovered migrant bodies in Brooks County were unidentified according to the county clerk. Of the 82 classified as identified, some were identified by driver’s licenses or other personal belongings, a method that may be inaccurate since these items commonly change hands during the migration process. In other indicators of the number of missing, Rafael Hernández received 300 emails and phone calls in the past year from family members in search of lost loved ones in the Falfurrias region.
Without DNA testing, it is not possible for families to know with certainty what happened to their loved ones, and if they are found, to them bury them with dignity. As Iraheta recalled: “..they found a cadaver that was already only bones and we recognized that it was him because I went to Mission, Texas to see the evidence. He had two photos in the same pants pocket. But we don’t know with certainty that it was him. We need DNA to know if in reality it is him. There is no DNA here in Texas. We need the government to help us with a DNA database so that we can take DNA samples from our families and be able to match them. Without that, we can’t do anything. There are a lot of families that say, ‘My son, my father, or my mother was lost there.’”
Family members, local activists, and humanitarian groups are struggling not only that the dead be identified, but more importantly, that migrants no longer die as they attempt to cross borders. This means a move away from border enforcement and policies centered on militarization, separation of families, and the criminalization of low-wage workers. It means creating immigration policies centered on respect for human rights and the interconnected human security that includes all communities in the border region.
At the May 1 vigil in Houston, immigration rights activist Maria Jimenez spoke of the ways that the unjust deaths can move the conscience and demand a response. “Today we formally call on the dead to accompany us in our struggles, to help us to break the silence. This silence that we break together, we and the dead, can serve to create a more just world, a life with dignity for all.”
Writer: Christine Kovic is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Houston-Clear Lake and, with Houston Unido, author of the report on migrant deaths in South Texas. Her current research addresses addresses the intersection of human rights and immigration, with emphasis on Central American migrants crossing Mexico in the journey north and on the human rights and organizing efforts of Latin@s in the United States. She writes for the Americas Program http://www.cipamericas.org/
Editor: Laura Carlsen
Photos: Christine Kovic
 Quoted in Barry, Tom 2011. “Border Patrol History: Origins of ‘Prevention-through-deterrence Strategy” Washington D.C.: Transborder Project.
 Kovic, Christine and Houston Unido 2013. “Searching for the Living, the Dead, and the New Disappeared on the Migrant Trail in Texas: Preliminary Report on Migrant Deaths in South Texas.” Houston, Texas
 Kiii-tv 2013.“Number of Immigrant Deaths in Brooks County on the Rise” June 10.
 Rubio-Goldsmith et. al. 2006 op. cit. y Martinez et al. 2013 “A Continued Humanitarian Crisis at the Border: Undocumented Border Crosser Deaths Recorded by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner 1990-2012.” Tucson: University of Arizona Binational Migration Institute.
 Martinez et al. 2013 op. cit.
 Lipton, Eric and Preston, Julia 2012. “As U.S. Plugs Border in Arizona, Crossings Shift to South Texas.” New York Times, June 16. Preston, Julia 2013. “Arizona Border Quiets after Gains in Security.” New York Times, March 15.
 Wessler, Seth Freed 2012. “Nearly 205K Deportations of Parents of U.S. Citizens in Just Over Two Years.” Colorlines, December 17. Applied Research Center 2011. “Shattered Families: The Perilous Intersection of Enforcement and the Child Welfare System”
 Slack, Jeremy et. al. 2013. “In the Shadow of the Wall: Family Separation, Immigration Enforcement and Security” Tucson: Center for Latin American Studies, University of Arizona.
 Meng, Grace 2013. “Turning Migrants into Criminals: The Harmful Impact of U.S. Border Prosecutions” New York: Human Rights Watch.
For Further Reading
Jimenez, Maria. 2009. “Humanitarian Crisis: Migrant Deaths on the U.S.-Mexican Border” San Diego and Mexico City: American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights.
Kovic, Christine and Houston Unido 2013. “Searching for the Living, the Dead, and the New Disappeared on the Migrant Trail in Texas: Preliminary Report on Migrant Deaths in South Texas.” Houston, Texas
Passel, Jeffrey, D’Vera Cohn and Ana Gonzalez-Barrera. 2012. “Net Migration from Mexico Falls to Zero – and Perhaps Less.” Washington D.C.: Pew Research Hispanic Center.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. 2013. Border Deaths by Fiscal Year.