In a neglected cemetery an hour’s drive north of the Mexican border, the graves of unknown immigrants lay hidden among and beneath the marked gravestones of others.
“They’re buried throughout the cemetery,” explains Baylor University’s Lori Baker, who heads a team of more than 30 archaeologists and forensic students. Her team has unearthed a mass grave of undocumented immigrants — dozens of bodies found in an unmarked corner of the Sacred Heart Burial Park in Falfurrias, Texas, nearly 80-miles from the border.
“[It’s] not something you should see in the United States,” she said. Some of the bodies they’ve exhumed were buried in trash bags or milk crates. “There’s no dignity in someone being buried in trash bags.”
Shovels pose a risk to the carelessly buried remains, so Baker’s team digs by hand in 100-degree heat.
“We have to be careful because a lot of their remains are skeletonized,” she says. Her team uses wires to test the earth for resistance to make sure there are not piles of bodies below.
“You can see the bodies are stacked upon the bodies with other bodies,” she explained. “We’ve seen that in several areas. It’s discouraging…it’s not how you want your loved ones to have their final resting place.”
Baker said they exhumed at least 52 bodies during the last dig, but she thinks that number will increase due to multiple bodies found in the same body bag.
The bodies they recover are thought to be those of Central American immigrants who died while crossing the Texas desert, in search of better life in the United States, and escaping a perilous one back home.
“I don’t think we can any longer call them undocumented immigrants,” Baker says. “We have to say they’re refugees; people fleeing from El Salvador are fleeing for their lives.”
All too often the bodies are small. The remains are gruesome evidence that not all the children who cross the border get picked up by U.S. Border Patrol.
“We discovered our first baby two years ago,” Baker said. “That season we had a baby and two children.”
The archaeologist says it’s too soon to say if her team found more remains of children on her latest dig. “We don’t open remains until we get them back into the laboratory, so I can’t say. But I can tell you that we found a large number of very small sets of remains.”
The remains are brought back to the Baylor lab for DNA testing. Researchers hope to identify the remains and notify the families of the deceased.
“The problem with children—and we’re seeing so many crossing — is that they can’t regulate heat. They’re not going to survive; if adults can’t survive, children are even more vulnerable,” she says.
Jennifer Husak, a recent Baylor graduate who received her degree in forensic science, says the dig site at the Sacred Heart Burial Park is about respect for human life.
“I’m not a mom, I’m not a parent or anything, but just thinking if I had a child and they were buried in an unmarked grave like that — it just breaks my heart,” she said. “These are still people and people shouldn’t be buried like this. They shouldn’t be put in small coffins and buried on top of each other. They should have respect.”
The county pays the local funeral home to process the bodies. In response to comment, Jessica McDunn, a spokeswoman for Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams told Fusion “the deaths of these individuals are tragic and difficult on many levels.”
“For years now, Howard-Williams Funeral Home has worked closely with federal and local officials to handle these situations. We believe that all human remains should be handled with dignity, care and respect,” she said. “We applaud the efforts to identify next-of-kin and repatriate remains where possible.”
McDunn said her funeral home is investigating the claims and will continue to cooperate with public officials.
According to CBP data, 445 immigrants died along the U.S.’ southwest border in 2013. Many of them — 156 in total — died in the Rio Grande Valley sector of Texas. That’s up from 151 who died in the area in 2012.
But the numbers don’t always reflect all those who died in the areas adjacent to the border, such as some of those who perished in Falfurrias, Texas, where migrants often get out of vehicles and attempt to walk across the desert to evade border patrol checkpoints.
Border Issues Extend Beyond the Border Region
Chief Deputy Benny Martinez filled three large binders with images of the 130 immigrant bodies found in his jurisdiction of Brooks County in 2012. He said he hopes that by keeping a record of what he has found in the desert he can somehow help families who are searching for their missing loved ones.
Martinez said the number of recorded migrant deaths last year dropped to 87 in his county, and so far this year stands at 37. Prior to 2012, Brooks County averaged about 50 to 60 immigrant bodies per year, he said.
The chief deputy says his county isn’t classified as a “border county,” and that means less funding.
“The fact that we’re not a border county means there is no [Border Patrol] funding directly to the county,” he told ABC News last year.