EAGLE PASS, Texas (Border Report) — Seventy-year-old retiree Don White spent a career in the semiconductor industry working on electronics. But it’s during his senior years that he feels he is really making a difference.
He is a volunteer deputy with the Brooks County Sheriff’s Department and spends his days — and often nights — searching the remote and desolate brush and ranchlands looking for lost migrants, and migrant remains just north of the border in South Texas.
“They’re abandoned by their group or their guide, their coyote. And they’re completely lost. Often times they’re without supplies, So it’s a little bit sad finding them but there’s also some satisfaction in that they’ll eventually be sent home to their family,” White told Border Report earlier this month as he helped students from Texas State University exhume unidentified migrant remains at a cemetery in Eagle Pass, Texas.
That’s about 200 miles from Brooks County, and hours from his home in Schertz, outside San Antonio. But White still went to the dig with students from the university’s Operation Identification program, because he said Brooks County has had years of experience unearthing and searching for migrant remains, and he’s here to help other South Texas counties that are feeling overwhelmed with an onslaught of deaths of asylum seekers who have crossed from Mexico and perished on the borderlands.
“We’ve been dealing with this in Brooks County for years, that’s why we have a certain level of expertise in knowing how to assess and how to help and that expands out to helping other counties when we can,” White said.
For the past eight years he has been a volunteer deputy with the Brooks County Sheriff’s Remote Wildlands Search and Recovery program.
He said the program this past year was partially subsidized by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s border security funds, which helped to pay for some of White’s expenses. But he is not paid a salary.
Over the years, White says he has helped to find hundreds of unidentified migrant remains; and has helped to find quite a few lost migrants who were still alive.
“I’ll find about half a dozen a year who are still alive and are medically stressed. They want help when I find them. So we get them medical help and get them on their way,” he said.
If a migrant is alive and in medical distress he says he calls Border Patrol and EMTs who have GPS-location devices and equipment to keep them alive.
Most often they are suffering from dehydration and hyperthermia in the punishing triple-digit heat of these desolate ranchlands.
Brooks County has had 82 migrant deaths so far this year. And has one of the highest fatality rate for asylum seekers who cross the Southwest border, according to the South Texas Human Rights Center, a nonprofit group that works with White, Texas State University and others to help locate lost migrants and unidentified remains.
In 2021, there were a record 119 migrants who died in Brooks County, Eddie Canales, who runs the South Texas Human Rights Center told Border Report.
Having someone like White to help go out searching for lost migrants gives more of them a chance at survival, he told us.
Brooks County is “the No. 1 county of where deaths are happening,” Canales said recently during a memorial service his group held in Falfurrias, Texas, in remembrance of the migrants who have died there. “It’s very difficult for families whose loved ones get lost.”
“It’s heavy brush. There’s open areas and even in the open areas the range grass is very thick. The vines on the ground grab your feet and no matter where you walk it’s all sand. And the sand may be covered with leaves, maybe covered with grass but it’s all sand so it’s always soft,” White said. “Often times in the thick brush they’ve been dropped by their group, dropped by their coyote and they’ve just been wandering not knowing where to go.”
He said he came across one migrant man who had a big gash on his thigh. He cut his leg on barbed wire fencing. He had been lost for three days without food or water. And White said he couldn’t walk, but could only shuffle.
“He hadn’t seen anybody in probably four days. He had no idea where he was at. He called 911 and then left the area because he had no idea if anyone was going to respond. So even after making the location it still took half an hour to find him and he saw me before I saw him,” White said.
White teared up as he recalled how grateful the man was for being found. And he said all the man wanted was to return to his family south of the border.
“We talked a little bit. he was extremely thankful,” White said.
“When they call 911 they’re done,” White said. “They want to go home more than they want to stay. Most of them have said ‘I want to go home.’ and it’s as simple as that. They’re mentally abused, beaten, exhausted. They’re done and the only life they want right now is to be with their family.”
White is a tall man, over 6-feet and is a former volunteer recovery diver who also worked for decades volunteering with the Bexar Sheriff’s Department in San Antonio.
He says he tries to keep his emotions in check so that he can be focused on finding the person, or groups who are lost.
But some days stick with him and he can’t forget the images.
Like the time he found skeletal remains on a ranch. There was a billfold by the body but no identification. There were only two notes inside it. One was a drawing of a saguaro cactus. The other a short letter from a family in Spanish telling “Papi” to call home when he gets to his new American destination.
The lucky ones who he finds alive usually find him because he says he’s looking down on the ground, but they are usually waving their hands in the air and looking toward the horizon for help.
“Sometimes they can’t walk but they’re waving at me, they’re yelling at me. And that’s how I find them,” he said.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com