Disclaimer: The people discussed in this article are not immigrants, as this reported mistakenly calls them, they are illegal aliens that are being encouraged to come here by our government. JMO

Civil rights group: Texas authorities fail to do part identifying remains of undocumented immigrants

  • By Mark Collette
  • Posted February 3, 2013 at 6:32 a.m.CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Investigators may find passports, like this Honduran passport found near an immigrant’s remains in Brooks County in 2012, to help identify the dead, but a civil-rights group is now pressuring South Texas authorities to use DNA testing in all cases.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Bodies of undocumented immigrants found in Brooks County often are so decomposed that articles of clothing and other personal effects are the only identifying markers. These shoes belonged to an immigrant found dead in 2012.

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO In cases where undocumented immigrants carry cellphones, investigators may call numbers in the phone to try to reach someone who can identify the remains, but civil rights advocates argue only DNA testing is a sure way to identify the dead. This phone belonged to an immigrant found dead in Brooks County in 2012.

CORPUS CHRISTI — A civil-rights group is preparing to pressure Texas agencies that don’t take DNA samples from the unidentified remains of undocumented immigrants, saying those agencies aren’t following state law.

The Texas Civil Rights Project said South Texas especially does a poor job of cataloging immigrant deaths, to the despair of those seeking missing relatives who may be buried and forgotten in nameless graves.

“There’s total disarray in South Texas,” said Maria Jimenez, a Houston-based immigrant advocate and civil rights activist.

The pressure comes as South Texas experiences a surge in migrant deaths, even as overall immigration decreases. In Brooks County, the epicenter of deadly illegal border crossings in South Texas, the remains of 129 people were discovered in 2012. Of those, at least 47 remain unidentified, according to county records.

It was the most dead in one year in local officials’ memory, and more than double the 52 recovered bodies in 2011. The county cemetery, site of dozens of “John Doe” markers, is running out of space.

“We took interest in it because we saw it primarily as a humanitarian crisis in the state of Texas,” said Tom Power, a legal advocate for the project.


Sheriff’s investigators said the tally represents a fraction of those who die because many are never found among the prickly mesquite thickets and sandy soils that make the 944-square-mile county such a deadly route for migrants.
They and their smugglers choose the route more than 60 miles inland because it avoids a Border Patrol checkpoint at Falfurrias. But that means walking at least 30 miles across bleak, unforgiving terrain where it is easy to get lost or injured, or to succumb to the elements.

Even with cellphones, callers who get through on weak signals can’t always tell dispatchers where they are because there are few landmarks across the wide ranches. Animals quickly find and ravage remains, making identification that much harder.

Power said his initial inquiries about the handling of remains show policies vary widely among agencies, leading to inconsistencies in tracking the cases.
But there may be a ready solution.

The Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth analyzes DNA samples from unidentified remains under a federal grant. The information is fed into state and national databases. The services are free to law enforcement agencies and to relatives of the missing who can submit their own samples to see if their family members are among the dead.

The center also provides free training for law enforcement and medical examiners.


While Washington haggles over federal immigration policy at the start of a new term, the grim task of gathering and identifying the dead remains a local problem.
Tiny rural agencies such as the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office are ill equipped to deal with the tide of bodies, bones and personal effects discovered by ranchers and Border Patrol agents in the wilderness. The sheriff’s office has about 10 deputies on a budget of $681,000, not counting the jail budget. That is supplemented with about $400,000 in asset seizures. Typically only one deputy is on patrol.

Chief Deputy Benny Martinez said county officials are only now becoming aware of the DNA issue and were not familiar with the Center for Human Identification. He said the sheriff’s office and other county officials are likely to be receptive to the DNA testing program, especially if it comes at little or no cost to the county.
“I think it needs to be done, absolutely,” he said.

Earlier attempts to work with forensic anthropologists around Texas didn’t come to fruition because Brooks County couldn’t afford to transport bodies back and forth, County Judge Raul Ramirez said.

Shipping samples to the center would be much cheaper as it would involve mailing just a few bones in most cases, said Dixie Peters, technical leader for the center’s missing persons unit.

“I think folks didn’t know about this,” Power said. “I think the problem arose pretty quickly, pretty rapidly and they just couldn’t deal with it.”

Power said his group believes Texas law requires the DNA samples be taken from each unidentified set of remains. They are pondering legal action but may be able to work with local jurisdictions to inform them about the UNT program and convince them to participate without the need for litigation, he said.

“There’s a lack of communication between agencies as to what’s available,” said Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, researcher and adjunct lecturer at the University of Arizona’s Binational Migration Institute. “I really think there’s a lot of things that can be done that would help the situation that have to do with just coordination and deciding to set up a system.”

Arizona had similar problems because its border counties had no centralized process for unidentified remains, Rubio-Goldsmith said. Things improved after the Pima County Medical Examiner started processing all of the border counties’ unidentified remains.


Brooks County has no medical examiner. It uses Elizondo Mortuary in Mission to handle the bodies. The sheriff’s office doesn’t have the staff to investigate the identity of each dead migrant, Chief Deputy Martinez said. They came in spades last year — about every other day on average, with as many as two or three on some days.

“The officials that I talked with not only in Brooks but in a number of the counties were people who really wanted to do the right thing ... but the systems don’t seem to be in place,” said Rubio-Goldsmith, who is in the middle of federally funded research on how immigrants’ remains are processed in local jurisdictions across the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

With only one full-time crime investigator at the sheriff’s office, the family-owned funeral home became the de facto entity for piecing together clues about the identities of the dead. It has been somewhat successful, identifying and reaching the families of dozens of the dead, based on body markings, notes and ID cards found with clothing, and other clues.

Power said these efforts fall short of what the law requires and don’t provide enough assurance that bodies are being correctly identified. Moreover, when identification can’t be made, and DNA samples aren’t taken, the likelihood of getting an answer falls to almost zero, he said.

The funeral home sends unidentified bodies back to Brooks County for burial in “John Doe” graves after two weeks, he said. If a relative calls seeking information after burial, it may be impossible to locate and exhume the correct set of remains for testing.

The Elizondos couldn’t be reached for comment but have said in previous interviews that they do their best to piece together information and work with consulates to help families of the dead. They installed a new refrigerated storage unit last year to handle the surge in deaths.


Power’s group also has concerns because the evidence could be useful in prosecuting human smugglers. Though undocumented immigrants break the law when they enter the country, they may also be crime victims when misled or mistreated by the smugglers who lead them across the wilderness.

A Honduran woman told sheriff’s and Border Patrol investigators Jan. 15 that she was raped by three smugglers at a stash house near Hidalgo. The smugglers left her behind in Brooks County when she became faint and couldn’t keep up with the rest of the group.

Many who are apprehended in the county tell authorities they were left behind after falling ill or injured. Those who don’t get apprehended, especially in the searing summer months, may end up at the Elizondo Mortuary.

That’s where one woman from El Salvador believes her son is. Jimenez, the civil rights advocate, said she and the California-based Angels of the Desert, an aid group, have been trying to help the woman ascertain whether the remains from Brooks County are her son’s, based on a few physical characteristics.

But there is no DNA sampling, Jimenez said, and the woman can’t afford the $100 per day the funeral home would charge to store the remains to keep him from being buried among the other unknowns in the county cemetery. The civil rights project and Angels of the Desert are working with the Salvadoran consulate in Houston to try to delay burial.

The project has made dozens of public information requests with Brooks and other South Texas counties, including Hidalgo, Cameron and Webb, to assess their policies for handling unidentified remains. It plans to publicize its findings this year, Power said.

Civil rights group: Texas authorities fail to do part identifying remains of undocumented immigrants » Corpus Christi Caller-Times