Recovering remains of migrants who die in high West Texas desert takes emotional toll on search crews


'We have zero state or federal assistance to help pay for this burden,' Hudspeth County administrator says

Deputies with the Hudspeth County Sheriff’s office and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials help to carry the remains of a mid-30-year-old migrant woman from El Salvador who was located 20 miles north of the Rio Grande on Saturday in remote West Texas mountainous terrain. (Photo by Joanna MacKenzie/Hudspeth County)

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Rescue crews found the body of a migrant woman from El Salvador during the weekend in a remote desert area in Hudspeth County, the second migrant body found in a week and 13th so far this year, the director of county emergency services told Border Report.

The woman was in her mid-30s and it was a “recent death,” said Joanna MacKenzie, the Hudspeth County Emergency Management Coordinator and County Administrator.

The retrieval caps an unprecedented year of migrant deaths for the remote West Texas county with a population of under 5,000, limited resources and limited body bags, she said.

The remains of a woman from El Salvador were found near a tree Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021, where backpacks and other remnants were left in remote West Texas in Hudspeth County. (Joanna MacKenzie/Hudspeth County Photos)

MacKenzie was among a group of first responders who hiked over three hours Saturday in what she called “high desert mountains in rough terrain” to locate the body. It was 20 miles from the Rio Grande on a trail frequently used by coyotes who lead migrants through dangerous and remote terrain to pick up locations near Interstate 10 in West Texas, about 100 miles east of El Paso.

“Backpacks, clothing, plastic bottles left behind by travelers riddle the ranch,” MacKenzie said. “It took over three hours just to reach her body. It is No. 13 year to date.”

The discovery of the Salvadoran woman by Hudspeth County Sheriff’s deputies and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials came after a CBP officer on horseback found the skeletal remains of another migrant Wednesday in remote terrain in Hudspeth County, MacKenzie said.

And MacKenzie said they fear more bodies will be discovered as the triple-digit heat from a few weeks ago has been replaced by cooler 80-degree temperatures, according to the National Weather Service.

Joanna MacKenzie

It is a year of “crisis,” her county declared as it backed Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s heightened border security plans in early summer. But she says they have yet to get financial relief.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday extended the disaster declaration, which now includes 43 Texas counties that locally declared a disaster and agreed to partner with the state to arrest and detain people for crimes related to the “border crisis.” Hudspeth County is included in the renewed disaster declaration.

She also worries that a recent Supreme Court decision forcing the Biden administration to re-implement the Trump-era Migrant Protection Protection Protocols program known as “Remain in Mexico could push more migrants to try to make the dangerous crossing north through Hudspeth County.

“We anticipate another uptick with improved weather and hunting season — where hunters find remains out and about,” MacKenzie said.

Further hurting this community is the fact that “we have zero state or federal assistance to help pay for this burden,” she said. “Not to mention the mental and emotional burden of bagging the body of someone who was healthy and young, or the ranchers on constant patrol on their own land.”

Adding to the emotional turmoil, this weekend MacKenzie said the county could not find enough body bags to be used for the migrant remains. “The only bags we could get were paper thin. Literally had a body fall out,” she said.

The area where migrant remains were found on Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021, is known as high desert mountains in remote Hudspeth County, Texas. (Joanna MacKenzie/Hudspeth County Photo)

She said they finally procured body bags with handles so that groups of first responders could carry the bodies “since the bodies are most often hiked out and not just put on a gurney,” she said.

Photos taken by MacKenzie and supplied to Border Report show crews hiking through prickly pear and other cacti in rocky mountainous terrain to extricate the bodies.

She said it costs the county about $3,000 per recovered body in first responder and overtime costs and other related expenses. She said that the county had a budget of $12,000 but the county has already spent almost $40,000 on migrant remains so far this year.

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