FALFURRIAS, Texas (Border Report) — Under an ancient canopy of towering elm and ash trees on the grounds of the Brooks County Courthouse, 82 white wooden crosses have been placed to honor migrants who have died crossing into these rural lands from Mexico, so far this year.
Eddie Canales of the nonprofit South Texas Human Rights Center on Friday led the ceremony and said many of the migrants remain unidentified and their families in other countries are still searching for them.
“Every year we take the opportunity to recognize the people that have perished here,” Canales told Border Report. “We make an effort to recognize their valiant efforts. They’re coming here to work, to better their lives and tragically our policy is wrong in terms of causing deaths.”
This county is 60 miles north of the Mexican border and it is treacherous and dangerous. Its remote ranches and desolate brush are filled with snakes and it heats up to triple digits for months on end. Migrants who get lost in the brush often don’t make it, advocates say.
With Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) approaching, Canales says this is the time each year they get permission from the courthouse to put up the crosses.
He said the number of migrant deaths this year in Brooks County is quickly approaching last year’s record high of 119.
“We’re dealing with the reality that exists here, especially here in Brooks County, being the No. 1 county of where deaths are happening,” Canales said. “It’s very difficult for families whose loved ones get lost.”
Canales’ nonprofit helps families to locate the migrants who are lucky enough to be found before rattlesnakes, dehydration and hyperthermia get them.
But he also works with Texas State University’s Operation Identification program to help identify the remains of those who are reported missing.
Dr. Kate Spradley is an anthropology professor at Texas State and director of Operation Identification, which was founded in 2013 to help identify remains found in the Rio Grande Valley. According to the center, this part of Texas “receives the highest reported number of undocumented migrant deaths in the state each year.”
She and Canales on Friday said a centralized and regionalized information system for sharing DNA needs to be established on the border with Mexico.
“Our state is unlike every other state in the country. We don’t have a regional coroner or medical examiner system. If we had a regional center of identification or regional medical examiner’s system in the Rio Grande Valley and in West Texas, we would not have the problems we have today,” Spradley said.
Spradley says her hope, and that of other forensic specialists, is that South Texas will establish a system similar to that in Pima, Arizona, which has identified thousands of migrant remains in the past decade.
“We need a centralized system and we want it to model Pima County’s,” she said. “This is not just for migrants but for the greater good. There are too many different standards here.”
Some smaller counties rely on justices of the peace to decide the fate of remains.
The Webb County Medical Examiner’s Office oversees 11 border counties and its morgue is full.
Dorothy Peña, of Corpus Christi, sang prayers in the Indigenous language of Kalpulli Ehekatl Papalotzin, a tribe from Mexico City at Friday’s memorial service in Brooks County for migrants who have died this year. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)
Dorothy Peña, came 60 miles from Corpus Christi, to attend Friday’s memorial service.
She sat on the ground with the 21-inch wooden crosses and sang prayers in the Indigenous language of Kalpulli Ehekatl Papalotzin, a tribe from Mexico City, which means Venerable Butterfly of the Wind.
She had tears in her eyes as she meandered through the crosses with what they call a sahumador popoxcommitt, in which she was burning incense made from the sap of Montezuma pine trees.
“We use these instruments traditionally to bless the spirits of the deceased and their families,” she told Border Report.
Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley who runs the largest migrant center in the region, led a prayer service, in English and Spanish, at Friday’s memorial.
Standing over the 21-inch-tall wooden crosses, she told Border Report that U.S. immigration laws need to recognize the dignity of asylum seekers who are trying to come to the United States seeking a better life.
“These crosses represent all those, and not only them but all the others, that have in their attempt to enter the United States has been a death sentence for them. And it’s not right,” Pimentel said.
“Most of them with great hopes it is that they come and they have lost their lives in this journey of finding life,” Pimentel said.
“Human life must e respected and cared for lovingly,” she said. “Unfortunately our border brings death and uncertainty to many.”