Uncounted deaths fuel ‘mass dis­as­ter’

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Rob O’Dell, Daniel González and Jill Castel­lano

Across sandy Texas scrub­land, along swift-mov­ing Cal­i­for­nia canals, in sear­ing Ari­zona deserts and within re­mote New Mex­ico canyons, the bod­ies of hun­dreds of im­mi­grants who died il­le­gally cross­ing the south­west­ern bor­der with Mex­ico are found each year.

Bor­der Pa­trol agents en­counter some of the dead and count them in the agency’s an­nual re­port that con­sti­tutes the only of­fi­cial reck­on­ing of the death toll.

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the USA TODAY Net­work found many mi­grant deaths are never ac­counted for — in­clud­ing when bod­ies are dis­cov­ered by sher­iff ’s deputies, po­lice, ranch­ers, hik­ers and hu­man­i­tar­ian groups.

Il­le­gal cross­ings along the south-

western bor­der have claimed 7,209 lives over the past 20 years, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cial Bor­der Pa­trol sta­tis­tics, but the ac­tual num­ber is far higher.

A USA TODAY Net­work in­ves­ti­ga­tion found federal au­thor­i­ties largely fail to count bor­der crossers when their re­mains are re­cov­ered by au­thor­i­ties, and even lo­cal counts are of­ten in­com­plete.

Net­work re­porters spent nine months at­tempt­ing to build the most com­plete count of bor­der-crosser deaths in Cal­i­for­nia, Ari­zona, New Mex­ico and Texas from 2012 to 2016 to re­veal how many are missed. That ef­fort found many more deaths than the Bor­der Pa­trol’s of­fi­cial num­ber. In three of those states, the USA TODAY Net­work found

25% to nearly 300% more mi­grant deaths over five years.

A com­plete ac­count­ing proved elu­sive be­cause many mu­nic­i­pal au­thor­i­ties re­spon­si­ble for in­ves­ti­gat­ing deaths on or near the bor­der don’t track bor­der­crosser deaths.

In­for­ma­tion on mi­grant deaths in Texas is in­com­plete or un­avail­able in many coun­ties, so the true num­ber is even higher than the USA TODAY Net­work’s count. The in­ves­ti­ga­tion found no cen­tral gov­ern­men­tal, aca­demic or non-profit en­tity that tracks all bor­der deaths, be­yond those en­coun­tered by the Bor­der Pa­trol.

In an at­tempt to count all mi­grant deaths since 2012, the net­work re­quested in­for­ma­tion from more than 35 med­i­cal ex­am­in­ers, coun­ties, sher­iff ’s of­fices and jus­tices of the peace.

This un­der-re­port­ing oc­curs in each of the four states that bor­der Mex­ico. It is acute in Texas, where a spike in im­mi­grants with­out doc­u­men­ta­tion and fam­i­lies flee­ing poverty and vi­o­lence in Cen­tral Amer­ica has caused bor­der­crosser deaths to soar in re­cent years. In Brooks County, Texas, the bod­ies of uniden­ti­fied bor­der crossers were buried in mass graves un­til a few years ago. Some other coun­ties con­tinue to bury un­known mi­grants in un­marked graves.

Hun­dreds of bor­der deaths in­volv­ing mi­grants were not in­cluded in of­fi­cial Bor­der Pa­trol sta­tis­tics from 2012 to

2016. In New Mex­ico, the num­ber of mi­grant deaths found by the net­work was nearly four times higher than the of­fi­cial count, and in Cal­i­for­nia, there were 60% more deaths than the Bor­der Pa­trol re­ported. In Ari­zona, the num­ber of deaths found by the net­work was 25% higher for the five-year pe­riod, but in some years, it was 50% higher.

The lack of a full ac­count­ing of bor­der deaths di­min­ishes the full im­pact of the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis.

The Bor­der Pa­trol’s in­ac­cu­racy in de­ter­min­ing the num­ber of dead mi­grants, and where the deaths oc­curred, de­prives pol­i­cy­mak­ers of in­for­ma­tion that could save lives, through en­force­ment ef­forts or changes to im­mi­gra­tion laws.

In­for­ma­tion about those crossers could more ac­cu­rately pri­or­i­tize where to add en­force­ment and where to be­gin build­ing Pres­i­dent Trump’s planned bor­der wall.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion came af­ter the net­work’s re­port “The Wall” re­vealed that a full bor­der wall would come at a cost never ex­plored. In Texas, which has about 50 miles of bor­der fenc­ing, a full bor­der wall could dis­rupt about 5,000 parcels of mostly pri­vate prop­erty. Even as wall pro­to­types are built, no cost­ben­e­fit anal­y­sis has been made pub­lic to re­veal how many crossers a wall would stop, and at what price.

‘Vig­or­ous ig­no­rance’

Im­mi­grant ad­vo­cates said past pol­icy has raised the death toll by push­ing mi­grants, some aided by smug­glers who profit off them, to cross some of the most in­hos­pitable ter­rain in the USA.

Robin Reineke, an an­thro­pol­o­gist and co-founder of the Tucson-based Colibri Cen­ter for Hu­man Rights, said “vig­or­ous ig­no­rance” of the lives lost lets pub­lic of­fi­cials avoid ad­dress­ing the is­sue.

“I’m dis­turbed by the fact that this mas­sive loss of life on the bor­der has been go­ing on for nearly 20 years … and we still don’t have a con­clu­sive count, and we haven’t re­ally in­vested the re­sources in get­ting any­where,” said Reineke, whose non-profit group helps iden­tify the re­mains of mi­grants who died while il­le­gally cross­ing the south­west­ern bor­der.

The re­mains of bor­der crossers that go un­re­ported are less likely to be iden­ti­fied, there­fore less likely to be re­turned to their rel­a­tives.

“Pol­i­tics aside, these (peo­ple) are some­body’s fam­ily. ... That fam­ily will never know what hap­pened to their loved one,” said Kate Spradley, founder of Op­er­a­tion Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, a Texas non-profit group that lo­cates and iden­ti­fies mi­grant re­mains so they can be re­turned to their fam­i­lies.

As thou­sands of mi­grants have fled vi­o­lence in Gu­atemala, Hon­duras and El Sal­vador in re­cent years, Texas has be­come a main en­try point for il­le­gal im­mi­grants from Cen­tral Amer­ica.

The deaths in south Texas are a “slowly ac­cu­mu­lat­ing mass dis­as­ter,” said Spradley, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of an­thro­pol­ogy at Texas State Univer­sity.

Texas is the sin­gle big­gest ob­sta­cle to a con­clu­sive count of mi­grant bor­der crossers’ deaths. The state is a frag­mented con­glom­er­a­tion of over­lap­ping rules and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, where find­ing the bod­ies re­quires nav­i­gat­ing a sys­tem of poor and ru­ral towns and coun­ties, along with jus­tices of the peace.

Many of these ju­ris­dic­tions don’t track mi­grant deaths. Some have buried re­mains in shal­low graves with other crossers or in un­marked pau­per’s graves. Some do not col­lect DNA sam­ples, as re­quired by state law, or do not con­duct au­top­sies to de­ter­mine a cause of death.

Spradley called the state’s track­ing of bor­der deaths “like a Third World coun­try.”

Cameron County, a ma­jor bor­der county that in­cludes Brownsville, said it had no avail­able data on any mi­grant deaths. Neigh­bor­ing Hi­dalgo County av­er­ages 50 mi­grants deaths a year.

In fis­cal year 2012, the Bor­der Pa­trol counted 144 deaths in its Rio Grande Val­ley Sec­tor, which cov­ers south Texas, in­clud­ing Brooks County. By Brooks County’s count, 129 mi­grants died there in 2012. The same sec­tor in­cludes the high-traf­fic ar­eas sur­round­ing Brownsville and McAllen, where dozens of mi­grants are found dead each year.

‘I don’t want to die out here’

Brooks County is a 70-mile hike from the bor­der. The dis­tance hasn’t pre­vented it from be­com­ing a killing field for mi­grants who’ve made their way from Cen­tral Amer­ica, through Mex­ico and into the USA. On av­er­age, 80 mi­grants have died there ev­ery year since 2012.

The trek across ranches, of­ten in triple-digit heat, can take three to four days for mi­grants who have been held in stash houses and haven’t been prop­erly fed or hy­drated for days be­fore their jour­ney.

The mi­grants have no knowl­edge of the ter­rain and the phys­i­cal and nav­i­ga­tional chal­lenges it presents.

“As harsh as the ter­rain is in Ari­zona, you have moun­tains that can guide you north,” Spradley said. “In Texas, it is so flat … you have scrub brush and trees ev­ery­where. There’s noth­ing to ori­ent you. And then when Bor­der Pa­trol come up, they are told to scat­ter. ... They get lost. They can walk around on the same 2-mile track for three days and then will just die of de­hy­dra­tion and ex­po­sure.”

The day Lynette Re­sendiz’s broth­erin-law Vic­tor Manuel Re­sendiz called, he’d been lost for four days and feared for his life.

He had crossed the bor­der plan­ning to join rel­a­tives in North Carolina, where he would find work.

“He was in a ravine. … He could see lights in the dis­tance, and he was go­ing to try to make it to the lights,” Re­sendiz said.

The bat­tery on his cell­phone was low, so he was go­ing to turn it off and wait for night­fall, when he would head to a ranch and drink wa­ter set out for the cat­tle, she said.

She urged him to call 911.

“He said, ‘I don’t care if im­mi­gra­tion gets me. I don’t want to die out here,’ ” she said. “That was the last we heard from him.”

Re­sendiz set out to find her broth­erin-law, not know­ing where he was. She trav­eled through Texas and New Mex­ico to Ari­zona, look­ing ev­ery­where he might have crossed.

She called the Mex­i­can con­sulate for in­for­ma­tion.

“I just wanted to get him, pe­riod,” Re­sendiz said. “Ei­ther alive or if he had passed away, I wanted to find him, so he wasn’t out there alone.”

Bor­der Pa­trol agents found his body at the bot­tom of In­dian Peak Canyon in Hi­dalgo County in the bootheel of New Mex­ico.

In 2006, a U.S. Govern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice re­port said the Bor­der Pa­trol needed to im­prove its meth­ods to ac­cu­rately record deaths.

The GAO re­port said mi­grant deaths were un­der­counted, and ac­cu­rate num­bers would al­low the Bor­der Pa­trol to im­prove plan­ning and its al­lo­ca­tion of re­sources.

The Bor­der Pa­trol said it tries to pre­vent mi­grant deaths. Agents res­cued 3,221 peo­ple in fis­cal year 2017, more than twice as many as the year be­fore. Res­cue data are used to help de­ter­mine where to de­ploy per­son­nel, equip­ment, tech­nol­ogy and in­fra­struc­ture to stop il­le­gal bor­der cross­ings as quickly as pos­si­ble.

“Mi­grants place them­selves at risk by at­tempt­ing to cross il­le­gally into the U.S. ei­ther by swim­ming through the Rio Grande River, or walk­ing long hours and some­times for days in rugged ter­rain in ex­treme tem­per­a­tures with­out enough wa­ter and food,” a Bor­der Pa­trol state­ment said.

In Cal­i­for­nia, the Im­pe­rial County Ir­ri­ga­tion District spent more than $1 mil­lion in­stalling life­sav­ing buoys and bilin­gual warn­ing signs.

The deaths haven’t stopped. If they make it past the canal, crossers face rugged ter­rain and harsh tem­per­a­tures.

“They’ve prob­a­bly been trav­el­ing for a while … and they’re prob­a­bly de­hy­drated,” said Sgt. Eric Fra­zier, su­per­vis­ing deputy coro­ner in the Im­pe­rial County Coro­ner’s Of­fice.

“The trip is more phys­i­cally de­mand­ing than what they thought. They might have one wa­ter bot­tle, but that’s just not gonna cut it, es­pe­cially in the hot­ter months. The ter­rain is re­ally bru­tal, too.”

Fra­zier said the best way to curb il­le­gal cross­ings is to make com­mu­ni­ty­ser­vice an­nounce­ments in Mex­ico.

“The coy­otes (smug­glers) who are bring­ing them here, they’re ly­ing to them,” Fra­zier said. “They’re telling them that they’re gonna get here quickly and that it’s not harm­ful, dan­ger­ous, and they’re ex­tort­ing most of these peo­ple and get­ting thou­sands of dol­lars prob­a­bly per per­son. And the av­er­age cit­i­zen doesn’t re­ally know the dan­gers.”

“Pol­i­tics aside, these (peo­ple) are some­body’s fam­ily. ... That fam­ily will never know what hap­pened to their loved one.” Kate Spradley Op­er­a­tion Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion

Brooks County Sher­iff Benny Martinez drives through a ranch south of Fal­fur­rias, Texas, that is fre­quently used by bor­der crossers. USA TODAY NET­WORK

Kate Spradley, founder of Op­er­a­tion Iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, works at the Foren­sic An­thro­pol­ogy Cen­ter at Texas State to try to iden­tify the re­mains of peo­ple who died at­tempt­ing to cross the bor­der. PHO­TOS BY MICHAEL CHOW/THE ARI­ZONA REPUB­LIC

Kate Spradley sur­veys body bags con­tain­ing the re­mains of uniden­ti­fied bor­der crossers at the Foren­sic An­thro­pol­ogy Cen­ter at Texas State in San Mar­cos, Texas, on Nov. 30. The lab does not have cold stor­age, so bod­ies are kept out­side un­til they can be pro­cessed and an­a­lyzed. MICHAEL CHOW/THE ARI­ZONA REPUB­LIC

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