Found near the border, the unidentified are buried throughout the state

FAR WEST TEXAS – Justices of the Peace normally perform marriages, or preside over small claims court, but in communities along the Mexico-US border, they are tasked with identifying deceased undocumented migrants.

Cities along the southern U.S. border with Mexico are grappling as to what to do with the bodies of unidentified migrants that are found. The deceased are handled in different ways, whether it is locating a local burial plot or conducting an autopsy. The taxpayers are often footing the bill.

“This guy was found in a lower ranch, he was with a group of guys from Guatemala,” said JP David Beebe, as he stood over the grave of an unidentified migrant in Merced Cemetery in Marfa recently. Beebe entered office in 2015 as Presidio County Justice of the Peace for Precinct 1 and this is the second unidentified person he has buried this year. In his first year in office, he buried one unidentifiable person, this is now the only unidentified migrant with a marker, and the others are simply empty plots, disturbed earth without a name.

The Missing Migrant Project has determined that at least 200 migrants have died this year crossing the Mexico-US border. The Missing Migrants Project is an organization that tracks death of migrants, including refugees, and asylum seekers, who have gone missing along mixed migration routes worldwide.

From January 1 to July 30 of this year, at least 200 undocumented migrants have died on the routes crossing the Mexico-US border. Less than the same period last year when 214 died and less than in 2016 where the number of deceased migrants was 208.

As the numbers of the deceased stay consistent, and keeping in mind that most are not found due to decomposition, the numbers of border crossings are decreasing. According to US Border Patrol figures, the number of migrants apprehended at the southwestern border fell from 611, 689 in 2016 to 342,084 in 2017 – a drop of about 44 percent.

This comes just as a fiscal 2019 spending measure was introduced in the House on July 18 that would provide $5 billion for a southern border wall, and $233 million to add 375 additional border patrol agents, including 140 canine teams, that, according to the House Appropriations Committee, will “initiate a five-year strategy toward achieving 1000 percent scanning on the southern border.”

“The more you patrol these areas, its more likely that people will go to remote areas and become lost, “according to Kate Spradley, professor of anthropology at Texas State University and the Director of Operation Identification – a project to identify the human remains found on or near the South Texas border through community outreach, forensic anthropological analysis, and collaboration with governmental and non-governmental organizations. Spradley has been doing this work for the past five years, and in that time her project has expanded to counties in West Texas. “If a county finds skeletal remains, they contact us, and send us the remains, we clean them, conduct and analysis and determine where they come from, “said Spradley.

Based on the analysis, they then contact the consulate to see if there is a missing person with a description that matches the remains. “People think consulates have a centralized system, but they don’t,” explained Spradley. In one case, Spradley had three bodies with identification, the Guatemalan consulate near her had no record of these individuals, and the Guatemalan consulate in McAllen did.

Spradley can also identify a person if personal items were found with the deceased. Once they believe they have a match, the consulate will ask for a DNA test from a family member of the missing person, but at times family members are reluctant to comply.

Operation Identification began working with Jeff Davis County eight months ago, in that time they have opened five cases with probable identification. “These remains were showing up all over the State of Texas, and counties were incurring the expense, “ according to Jeff Davis County’s Justice of the Peace, Mary Ann Luedecke. The project has helped the County alleviate the costs of testing, interment and autopsies. Since taking office in 2015, Luedecke, has had eight cases of unidentifiable remains. The terrain of the county is an unforgiving sprawl of 2,260 square miles of mountains and desert. “They are out there, but we aren’t finding them all,” said Luedecke.