Answers to key questions about botched burials of immigrants who died crossing US border


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McALLEN, Texas — Anthropologists have uncovered dozens of makeshift graves in a South Texas cemetery suspected of holding the remains of unidentified immigrants who died in the desert while attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

Authorities plan to investigate the 52 graves, many of which were unmarked and had remains not in coffins but in body bags, garbage bags and shopping bags and some in no container at all. Some of the bags contained more than one set of remains.

Baylor University anthropologist Lori Baker believes the graves in Falfurrias were dug from 2005 to 2009 and the migrants buried by a local funeral home.

Smugglers often guide immigrants through the brush trying to circumvent a Border Patrol highway checkpoint. There is little water, and the walk can take two or three days in punishing temperatures.

Some answers to key questions about the situation:


Q: HOW MANY IMMIGRANTS DIE CROSSING THE U.S.-MEXICO BORDER?

A: In the past 16 years, nearly 6,000 migrants have been found dead along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the Border Patrol. That figure includes 445 last year. Arizona is the perennial leader and saw its biggest total in 2010, with 223 bodies recorded by the Pima County medical examiner. The county recorded 168 last year.

Closer to the South Texas cemetery, 129 unidentified bodies were found in 2012 in Brooks County, about an hour's drive north of the border. That number dropped to 87 in 2013 and so far this year stands at 33. Prior to 2012, Brooks County averaged about 50 to 60 immigrant bodies per year.

Q: WHAT DO THEY DIE OF?

A: The cause of death is often difficult to determine depending on the condition of the remains, but many die of exposure to heat or cold and of dehydration. Closer to the Rio Grande drowning is another risk.

Q: WHAT IS DONE WITH UNIDENTIFIED BODIES FOUND IN BROOKS COUNTY?

A: When a body is found in Brooks County, a local justice of the peace makes the death announcement. The body is then sent to a medical examiner in Laredo for an autopsy. The medical examiner looks at any evidence from the scene, examines the remains, looks for identification, tattoos, jewelry, scars, dental work, anything that might help with identification. DNA samples are taken. Fingerprints and DNA are run through several databases.

The medical examiner also contacts foreign consulates in an effort to locate relatives. If they get a confirmed match and speak with the family, authorities try to arrange the return of the body as soon as possible.

The autopsies cost the county $1,500 not including transportation. With a population of only about 7,100, Brooks County has been asking unsuccessfully for years for federal reimbursement.

However, prior to 2013, unidentified bodies found in Brooks County were just given to a funeral home for burial. Limited attempts at identification were made.

Q: HOW MANY OF THE BODIES ARE IDENTIFIED?

A: Dr. Corrine Stern, the medical examiner in nearby Webb County who conducts autopsies for Brooks County, says her identification rate on non-skeletal remains is about 65 to 70 percent.

Q: HOW MANY BODIES HAVE BEEN FOUND AT THE CEMETERY IN FALFURRIAS?

A: Baker says her group will not know how many individuals were in the 52 graves until they inventory the remains back at her laboratory.

Q: WHAT HAPPENS TO THE REMAINS EXHUMED AT THE CEMETERY?

A: At her lab, Baker will build biological profiles to get height, age and ancestry. DNA samples will be taken and sent to national databases. Her team has started a repository for unidentified remains to hold them until they are identified.

Q: WHAT ARE OFFICIALS DOING?

A: Texas Rangers visited Falfurrias on Monday to meet with sheriff's officials and the district attorney. They were also expected to attend a meeting Tuesday between Brooks County leaders and Gov. Rick Perry's staff in Austin. On Wednesday, Brooks County commissioners are scheduled to discuss the issue in executive session with the sheriff's office and district attorney.

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