As the Border Patrol Catches Migrants, Students Dig Up Migrant Bodies in a Mass Grave

Many have described migrant journeys as a matter of “life and death.” During a ride-along with Border Patrol in McAllen, Texas, and a visit to a cemetery excavation site in nearby Falfurrias, Fusion’s Jim Avila saw the contrast in the starkest terms.

“We’ve all encountered unaccompanied children throughout my career,” an officer said during the patrol. “But not at the volume that we’ve been seeing.”

The officers apprehended two children from El Salvador, 16 and 12 years old, just after they floated across the Rio Grande on a raft. One woman from Honduras collapsed into the arms of an officer when he confirmed that she had made it to the United States. They would soon be taken to overcrowded processing centers and detention facilities with minimal comfort and little idea of their long-term fate in the country.

“Detention space is a challenge for us,” one officer said.

However, these migrants would take this outcome over the one being uncovered by students from Baylor University in a Texas town eighty miles north of the border. Among the marked graves of the Sacred Heart Burial Park there lies a mass grave of undocumented immigrants.

“[It’s] not something you should see in the United States,” said Dr. Lori Baker, the head of the 30-student dig team. “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.”

Too often, the bodies are small – evidence that not all the children heading north from Central America are being picked up by the border patrol. Some end up here.

“We discovered our first baby two years ago during our excavations,” Baker said. “And that season we had a baby and two children.”

The goal is to recover the bodies, take them to the Baylor lab and search for clues.

“We have to do a biological profile, determine age, sex, stature, ancestry,” Baker said. “So that we can then compare the remains that we have in the lab with missing persons cases that have been reported.”

Undocumented, unaccompanied, and undignified, the stories of many migrants are just coming to light in this crisis. Preyed upon by gangs and violence at home, migrants press on across the border or into the hands of patrol officers. The choices aren’t easy, and a detention center does not feel like freedom. But the unforgiving desert can hold a much worse fate.