The Missing Migrants of South Texas

“Intact, I think.”

Canales scrolled through until he found a photograph of a body, discovered on July 1st, that fit the general description of Efraín’s wife. The woman was splayed on the grass, her face discolored. From the angle of the image, it was difficult to see her face clearly, or perhaps it was just impossible to imagine that the contorted body and the woman smiling shyly were the same person. Salinas peered at the form Canales had filled out. “Is it her? She was little,” she said, and looked back at the photograph, uncertain. “And this one looks like she was little, too.”

In many rural counties, when officials couldn’t identify a body, they would bury it, sometimes in an unmarked grave. (Brooks County ended the practice in 2013.) This is illegal under Texas law, which mandates that unidentified bodies undergo DNA sampling. Operation Identification, a humanitarian program at Texas State University, in San Marcos, run by Kate Spradley, a forensic anthropologist, has been working to locate these graves, disinter the bodies for DNA testing, and repatriate them. “The Sheriff is the reason they have turned the county around, and now they have the best practices in the state, for a county without a medical examiner,” she told me. These days, thanks to coöperation between local agencies and the S.T.H.R.C., Brooks County has a better system for handling remains than many much larger, better resourced counties. Forensic techniques, such as rapid DNA testing and fingerprint analysis (enabled in part by controversial Homeland Security programs) mean that far fewer bodies go unidentified. Canales told me, of the hundred and nineteen sets of remains recovered in Brooks County last year, all but ten have been identified. “It’s really come a long way,” Salinas said. “From the wrong has come right.” But other South Texas counties still lag behind. “I’ve got friends in other counties who call us and say, ‘We have no idea what to do,’ ” she remarked.

Between 2015 and 2020, about fifty bodies were recovered each year in Brooks County, according to an S.T.H.R.C. report. Then came Title 42, a policy enacted by the Trump Administration at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic that closed ports of entry and blocked most avenues for asylum claims, ostensibly for public-health reasons. The policy, which is still in place in a modified form, has increased business for smuggling cartels and spurred people to cross in more dangerous places. “Before Title 42, the calls we got used to be, like, eighty-per-cent apprehended, twenty-per-cent missing,” Canales said. “Now it’s flipped—it’s more like twenty-per-cent apprehended, eighty-per-cent missing.” So far this year, there have been nearly seventy recoveries of remains in Brooks County, putting 2022 on track to be the deadliest year on record.

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