Uncounted deaths fuel ‘mass disaster’
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.
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