LAREDO, Texas (Border Report) — Webb County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Corinne Stern has already performed three autopsies on this busy day, and four unidentified migrants remain in her packed coolers still waiting for an examination.
Her facility, located on the outskirts of Laredo, are so full that some remains are stacked three to a table, she told Border Report as she gave a recent tour.
Outside, three portable refrigerated trailers hold an overflow of patients.
This forensic facility serves 11 counties on the South Texas border and has seen an unprecedented number of migrant remains sent there this past year, many due to drownings from up river in Eagle Pass in Maverick County.
In total currently there are 260 “border crossers,” as she calls them, stored at the Webb County Medical Examiner’s office waiting to be claimed by relatives, for DNA identification and for other information that might help them locate relatives and home countries of the deceased.
“This is unprecedented what’s happening in Maverick County,” Stern said on Friday as she showed Border Report her facility, which recently added a new wing, including cooler and inspection areas.
“We’ve never seen people crossing in numbers like they are,” she said.
Last month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, Border Patrol agents and local law enforcement helped to rescue 37 migrants who struggled as waters rose in the Rio Grande due to heavy rains in Eagle Pass, in Maverick County, Texas. Nine migrants drowned.
Despite the dangers, however, migrants continue to cross, and she says the medical examiner’s office also receives at least one drowning victim per week from Val Verde County, where the border town of Del Rio is located.
With 260 migrant remains at her facility now, she recently had to tell the other counties she serves that she was unable to take in additional migrant bodies.
”In the last month we’ve hit capacity despite having six coolers, and so I did send a memo out to all the JP jurisdictions that we cover to ask them to call me before they send a border crosser to see if we have space and that only applies to the border crossers not any other deaths,” Stern said.
Aside from Maverick and Val Verde counties, the Laredo County Medical Examiner’s Office also serves the South Texas counties of Dimmit; Frio; Zavala; Jim Hogg; Duval; Lasalle; Starr and Zapata.
Webb County, with 275,000 residents, however, is the most populous and largest geographically for her to serve. In the entire state of Texas, it is the sixth-largest land mass.
She says it can take her staff almost three hours to get from one end of the county to another, and if they are on the border to retrieve remains she says the extraction can take several hours, tie up vehicles and in effect utilize most of her staff.
Then once the bodies are brought to the morgue, they conduct a “head to toe” full examination with multiple toe tags and tags on the body bag to ensure there are no mix ups, she said.
Her team has been working overtime to identify migrant remains, she said.
This includes earmarking any scars, tattoos and dental or other implants.
She said if a patient had an implant put in the United States, then registered serial numbers from the devices can help to give clues as to the person’s identity.
But if they are from other countries, as most migrants are, their sleuthing can take hours and days and sometimes weeks and months to identify remains.
To do so, Stern’s staff search through all clothing of the deceased, looking for micro seams that might appear altered. That’s where migrants tend to tuck tiny pieces of paper with phone numbers they intended to call after they reached their U.S. destination.
She says they have found numbers sewn in bras, headbangs and the hems of skirts and inside belts.
“The women will fold little papers and sew into seams of bra, into head bands. Men will sew into back of belts or write numbers on the back of belts. We know all the hiding places. We know where to look. They do that to keep their families safe from being extorted,” Stern said.
If they are carrying an ID card, she says they do not assume it to be correct.
“We never use a card in the pocket to ID anybody, but it gives us a place to start,” she said. “If we have a name. We have a country. Then the consult calls to find if that person’s missing; and then from there we start talking to the family.”
But the coronavirus pandemic has also delayed their forensic quests.
DNA sent for analysis to the Center for Human Identification, a lab located in Fort Worth at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, became greatly backlogged when COVID-19 struck. At one point, it took years to get reports, but now Sterns says they receive information in a little over five months, if they’re lucky.
In the meantime, however, they must store the bodies at their facility while they wait to get information.
Sometimes when all else has been exhausted, Webb County will bury migrants in pauper graves in the city cemetery in Laredo.
This costs the county $1,800 to $2,500 per migrant, who are buried in caskets and given full burial services, she said. The graves are marked and if remains are later identified or family come to claim them, she said they can be dug up and sent back to their home countries.
In 2021, the Webb County Medical Examiner’s Office conducted autopsies on the remains of 297 migrants — and that’s the highest year count to date.
So far this calendar year, Stern says they have assisted 243 migrants. But that is minus one county — Brooks County — which stopped sending migrants to them in January and which has had about 80 migrant deaths already this year.
The majority of migrants die from hyperthermia and drownings, Stern said. But they also suffer from rattlesnake bites and blunt-force trauma from vehicular accidents, either getting thrown out of trucks or run over, she said.
Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber said his county added a refrigerated trailer to store migrant bodies as drownings continued to rise.
There were 20 stored in the trailer a few weeks ago, but on Monday he told Border Report they had just five left. Three are Mexican nationals and he says he hopes the families will come claim them this week.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Laredo who is running for re-election, is vice chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Committee. He told Border Report on Monday that if reelected he is up for chairman of this powerful committee that doles out funds to border communities and for border security. And he said he would make a priority adding more resources.
“I have tried to add funding under Democratic and Republican majorities but nothing yet, but next year, under my new position, (I) will push,” Cuellar said.
In the meantime, Stern says she continues to see an increase in children drowning and pregnant migrant women dying.
A few months ago, she said a Haitian woman who was full-term with pregnant female fetuses ran into the Rio Grande in Eagle Pass, and the mother and babies died.
“She ended up on my autopsy table and I had to deliver two beautiful full-term female fetuses,” Stern said, speaking about the loss of the unborn babies.
Then a mother tried to cross with a 3-year-old and an infant “and they both drowned. The younger was air evacuated to San Antonio but he didn’t make it and I had a 3-year-old on my autopsy table. Three-year-olds should not be on my autopsy table,” she said.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com