Beyond the Border: Texas has become the deadliest state in the US for undocumented immigrants

Melissa del Bosque, Beyond the Border. The Texas Observer and The Guardian, 6 August 2014. “Texas has become the deadliest state in the US for undocumented immigrants. In 2012, 271 migrants died while crossing through Texas, surpassing Arizona as the nation’s most dangerous entry point. The majority of those deaths didn’t occur at the Texas-Mexico border but in rural Brooks County, 70 miles north of the Rio Grande, where the US Border Patrol has a checkpoint. To circumvent the checkpoint, migrants must leave the highway and hike through the rugged ranchlands. Hundreds die each year on the trek, most from heat stroke. This four-part series looks at the lives impacted by the humanitarian crisis.” A partnership between The Texas Observer and The Guardian.

Excerpts from stories:

The southwestern US is carved up into nine Border Patrol regions, called sectors. Migrant apprehensions, a crude estimate of people illegally entering the US, have been declining in most sectors since 2005, and are significantly lower than historical highs. But the Rio Grande Valley sector, which includes Brooks County in south Texas, has seen a marked uptick in apprehensions in the past two years. Two other Texas border sectors, Del Rio and Laredo, saw a more modest rise in apprehensions for the same period….

It was Friday, Nov. 1, 2013. [A group of 24 men, women, and children] would walk all night and into the next day until they reached a highway north of the immigration checkpoint in Falfurrias. There, more SUVs would come for them and they would drive five hours northeast to Houston. Once they reached Houston, their families would pay the other half of the fee to the smugglers and then they’d be free. In Brownsville, the smugglers who had taken the initial payment made the trip sound routine. But, in fact, dozens die in Brooks County every year trying to hike around the Border Patrol checkpoint. The number of deaths began to climb after the checkpoint expanded and immigration policies were tightened in the mid-1990s. The death count rose even further in recent years with the exodus of Central Americans escaping violence at home….

Darkness fell and the two guides beckoned them forward. La migra [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement] were all around them, the guides warned. They had helicopters, surveillance balloons and truck patrols looking for immigrants. There were also the ranchers who could shoot you on sight for trespassing, and there were wild animals, snakes and roving gang members who would rob and rape you in the brush….

The ground shifted beneath their feet—in some places the sand was nearly a foot deep and carpeted with burrs. Since the last Ice Age, westerly winds had been depositing great layers of coastal sand across the inland county. It felt as if they were walking along the bottom of a vast ocean, drowning in darkness…. The only vegetation that thrived in Brooks County seemed designed to inflict misery: thorny mesquite, prickly pear, horse crippler cactus and cat’s claw. Mile after mile they marched through the sand, the humidity rising and barely a breeze in the air….

The US Border Patrol established the permanent checkpoint on US Highway 281 outside the town of Falfurrias – 70 miles north of the border – in 1994 to search for undocumented immigrants and for drugs….

In 2012, US government data showed that for the first time in 40 years, net migration from Mexico had reached zero. But apprehensions of Central Americans coming across the south Texas border have tripled since 2011. The southernmost tip of the Texas-Mexico border is the shortest distance from Central America to the United States and the most traveled route….

In Texas, private property rights are sacrosanct, and they are fiercely protected in Brooks County, where nearly all the land is privately owned. What [Rancher Presnall] Cage wants most is a return to the days when people didn’t routinely venture across his land, he says. Ranchers covet their quiet way of life, governed by a set of rules they call “ranch etiquette,” he says. “You don’t ask a man how many acres he owns because it’s like asking to look at his bank account. You don’t enter someone’s land without asking permission first.”…

Some ranchers have taken up arms. Dr Mike Vickers, a rancher and local veterinarian, formed a citizens’ militia in 2006. Called the Texas Border Volunteers, it patrols the county, rounding up undocumented migrants and handing them over to Border Patrol. Members of the group, which consists of ranchers, retired military and other volunteers from across the US wear military fatigues. They go out heavily armed….

By 2012, the flow of migrants through Brooks County had begun to escalate, and so had the deaths. Poverty and violence in Central America drove many people northward, and a record-setting heat wave in South Texas wreaked havoc on migrants traveling through the area. That year, 129 bodies were recovered – the most in the county’s history. In California, Rafael Hernandez, director of Desert Angels, a volunteer search and rescue group, began receiving frantic phone calls from families looking for missing relatives. In their pleas for help, they all mentioned the same place: a Border Patrol checkpoint outside a town called Falfurrias in Texas. Caceres had begun receiving similar calls.

When Hernandez arrived in Falfurrias in the summer of 2012, he, like [Guatemalan diplomat] Caceres, was horrified by the county’s haphazard response to the wave of immigrant deaths. Hernandez had a list of more than 400 families looking for missing relatives and Brooks County had a cemetery full of unidentified bodies. Together with the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project, Hernandez and other advocates held protests in Falfurrias, and made it known that county officials needed to follow the law and provide DNA testing for the unidentified remains.

The protests, press conferences and growing media attention had an impact on the county’s elected officials, who promised to remedy the situation. It would cost the county at least $2,000 per body, however, to perform DNA tests, which it couldn’t afford.

In May 2013, Dr Lori Baker, a professor and forensic anthropologist at Baylor University, offered to exhume the bodies at Sacred Heart Cemetery and test them with help from her students. The University of Indianapolis and Texas State University also pledged to help and, like Baker and her students, volunteered to do the work for free. Baker and others plan to list the information on national missing persons databases so that families from Guatemala and other countries can find their relatives. Caceres began working with an Argentinian forensic anthropologist in Guatemala to collect DNA and compile a list of families with missing relatives to share with Baker and the others working in Falfurrias….

Whenever ranchers in rural Brooks County, 70 miles north of the Mexican border, find a body, which is often these days, they call the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office. Chief Deputy Urbino “Benny” Martinez and his deputies are tasked with recovering the growing number of dead, and placing them in Department of Homeland Security-issued body bags – black bags for the recently dead, white for skeletal remains.

The 57-year-old Martinez has been in law enforcement for 35 years. He isn’t squeamish. But the images of the dozens of bodies he’s recovered in the ranchland haunt him. “You don’t ever become accustomed to it,” he says….

For many desperate families searching for missing relatives, Martinez is one of the few law enforcement officials they’ll ever meet who will genuinely listen. Despite his department’s lack of resources, despite having to skimp on gas for the patrol cars, despite working more than 50 hours a week to make up for the deputies he’s lost to budget cuts, he’ll still do everything possible to find their loved ones.