By Ivonne Spinoza
What is more important: laws or lives?
This is the question at the center of the immigration debate and its ramifications.
Conversations around illegal border crossings often result in the dehumanization of migrants. These are people we’re talking about and, separate from conversations about the reality of immigration laws, “no human being is ever illegal,” as Isabel Johnston wrote in the Immigration and Human Rights Law Review. Actions can be illegal, but people cannot.
As a companion to the vivid documentary Missing in Brooks County, here we look to not only some of the jarring statistics but also the very real details of migrants’ plights trekking north into Texas.
The Route of Death
Texas is now the leading state when it comes to migrant deaths,1 but it wasn’t always this way. A lot had to happen over decades before it got to this point.
Nowadays, most recriminations against immigration and border policies often fall on recent presidents—and there is plenty to implicate leadership in the last few decades. But many say President Clinton jump-started this humanitarian crisis in 1994 when his administration launched Operations Gatekeeper, Safeguard, and Hold the Line in California, Arizona, and Texas, respectively. These measures were designed to funnel migrants into the harshest and most dangerous crossing points, hoping to dissuade them from attempting to even try in the first place. The plan was a success on the first part and, as we explore here, a complete failure on the second.
As migrants were funneled to the desert, including the Brooks County area in Texas, they never stopped coming but survival became much harder. As a result, these areas have a lot more dead bodies. Texas surpassed Arizona in migrant deaths, and Brooks County specifically reported more migrant deaths between 2012 and 2019 than any other area of South Texas.
Border Patrol Agent Alex Jara, seen patrolling Brooks County in the documentary Missing in Brooks County, at one point says, “We don’t call them people anymore, we call them ‘bodies.’ Because if you call them ‘people,’ then it starts getting to you.”
With a 41,4 percent poverty rate, Brooks County is one of the poorest counties in Texas, which translates to limited resources. When combined with its location and a sandy terrain that can be incredibly challenging and exhausting for those walking for days, this helps explain why this area turned into a perfect storm for migrant deaths—the “Death Valley for migrants,” as it’s been fittingly nicknamed by some press.
A Texas migrant-crisis story in The Guardian recounts the experiences of Exelina, a woman who migrated from Honduras to try to reunite with family in the U.S. It vividly paints the picture of what migrants experience when attempting to cross Brooks County:
The ground shifted beneath their feet—in some places the sand was nearly a foot deep and carpeted with burrs. Since the last Ice Age, westerly winds had been depositing great layers of coastal sand across the inland county. It felt as if they were walking along the bottom of a vast ocean, drowning in darkness. The sand seeped into Exelina’s shoes and rubbed at her feet. Burrs covered her pants and socks, scratching her legs. Thorns tore at her arms through her thin gray hoodie. The only vegetation that thrived in Brooks County seemed designed to inflict misery: thorny mesquite, prickly pear, horse crippler cactus and cat’s claw. Mile after mile they marched through the sand, the humidity rising and barely a breeze in the air.
How do migrants find themselves in the middle of this harsh terrain and how do their bodies end up in Brooks County?
While not technically on the border, Brooks County happens to be situated one county above it (Hidalgo County sits below along the border). It’s where “coyotes“—people paid to guide migrants across the border—drop off migrants so they can skirt west of the Border Patrol Interior Checkpoint near the county seat of Falfurrias.
It’s in the attempt to circumvent this checkpoint that leads to so many deaths, with people navigating through 40 miles of private ranches that have unwittingly become a cemetery. These ranchlands of South Texas are private property, many of them traditionally oil and gas ranches (though some have been converted to other uses, like hunting, as you can see with some ranches listed here). Some are as large as 50,000 acres, and often patrolled by their own private security.
>>“Confronting the Agonizing Facts of Life and Death in Brooks County”:
Read more about Missing in Brooks County.
Water Rights, Human Rights
The migrant situation in South Texas has also led to a silent water war. On one side, humanitarian volunteers—including some ranchers, like Lavoyger Durham, ranch manager of the vast El Tule Ranch—leave potentially life-saving water stations out for migrants trying to survive the desert (temperatures have reached as high as 116℉ in 2016, and gone below freezing in the winter). On the other side are the ranchers and even law enforcement officials who destroy or deface the water stations.
Most of the (estimated) tens of thousands of border-crossing deaths in this area can be attributed to either exposure or dehydration. For years, Eddie Canales’ South Texas Human Rights Center (STHRC) has been working on a volunteer-based effort to keep water stations. But even the Red Cross proved to be an opposing group. The Red Cross came after STHRC for using their flags, which STHRC considered a universal symbol of aid, to mark the water stations. This is why they now use a modified red and blue cross flag design.
Despite the pushback, humanitarians—including veterans—keep working on building water stations, even if their efforts are often short-lived in the face of those who put in the effort to sabotage them. The STHRC currently maintains 90 stations, distributed in an area of about 1,200 square miles, and uses specific guidelines to build these life-saving stations.
It’s also worth noting that “no water station is set up without the complete affirmation of the owner or ranch representative of said property,” according to STHRC rules, so those who destroy them are actually invading someone else’s property.
Click on this interactive Google Map to learn more. You can zoom in and zoom out (for a few extra pieces of knowledge well beyond Brooks County.)
So, who are these “saboteurs”?
Some are members of law enforcement [see visual evidence here in the Disappeared Report], others are frustrated ranchers who publicly share their lack of empathy towards migrants, and some are even from local paramilitary groups. Presuming to have the law on their side, Brooks County residents who oppose the water stations go as far as to say that anyone needing water can “easily” find it because there are water reservoirs for cattle. Rancher Dr. Mike Vickers in Missing in Brooks County “refuses to support illegal activity” and will tell anyone who asks.
Recently, in one month alone, 14 of the water stations placed by Canales and STHRC volunteers were stolen.
Medical examiners working in the area mention that the water meant for cattle is the reason some migrants succumb on their journey faster than they normally would—sometimes even faster than they would without any water at their disposal.
These reservoirs, which again, ranchers mention as an alternative “option” to proper water stations, contain contaminated water not safe for human consumption. Drinking this water out of desperation has made many migrants traveling across the desert violently ill. They ultimately perish in the middle of nowhere, often never to be found again. In the documentary, Medical Examiner Corinne Stern says that these water troughs designed for cattle are “contaminated with feces, with microbes, [and] with other things from the environment.”
Students at the University of Indianapolis have been doing forensic research in Brooks County to assist the search for these missing persons. As part of that, they have volunteered to set up water stations and created this short video explaining how they go about doing it:
North of the border in Arizona, in the similarly unforgiving Sonoran Desert, at least 9,000 migrants have perished since the 1990s. A faith-based humanitarian organization called Humane Borders works hard to place water stations with the goal of reducing the number of migrant deaths, just as Eddie Canales and STHRC do in Brooks County.
“We work on the prevention side, by placing and servicing permitted, permanent water stations at strategic locations throughout the Sonoran Desert,” says Dr. John Chamblee, Research Chair with Humane Borders. “In addition to that, we have a public education campaign that is built around taking people out into the desert to service water stations, and showing them what the conditions are like for migrants. We also have a migrant death mapping program, which I’ve been working on since 2004. That began as a means of understanding where migration was happening so that we could put water stations in appropriate locations.”
In a newer development using higher-tech, border officials have deployed new Mobile Rescue Beacons to the Rio Grande Valley. These are stations equipped with technology that sends a distress signal when triggered; they hope it will help save many migrant lives. As noted in the Newsweek article which cites the Border Patrol, some lives have already been saved by the technology, though the real impact is yet to be seen.
A notable case had the rescue beacons activated several times within a short span of two days in 2021, near El Paso, Texas. One of those beacon calls was a distress response from a Mexican migrant and resulted in a successful rescue. He was later deported— but he was alive.
You’re Only “Lost” if Someone Is Looking for You
The National Institute of Justice has called migrants’ unidentified remains “the nation’s silent mass disaster.”2
Many families of missing migrants can’t tell immediately whether their relative has been successful in their border crossing. This leads to more time passing between the death of someone and any reports for a missing person being filled. This is true even when a family knows where or who to ask.
The delay in reporting means it’s less likely that an actual body will be recovered by the time a search starts and—because families often don’t know what these travelers were wearing—identification only gets harder, as there are few clues to come by.
There’s also only a handful of people working on recovering and identifying human remains at the border crossing, at any given time. This, paired with the extreme desert weather conditions (that can both quickly decompose and mummify whatever is left) and the presence of occasional predators like coyotes or scavenger birds, means the recovery of bodies is difficult—often impossible. In most cases, families are left without closure or, at best, with a box of scattered bones and rags.
In response to the lack of a national policy dealing with this humanitarian crisis, Texas State University volunteers are attempting to identify as many of these migrants as they can. They have taken on the job of exhumation and DNA matching. It’s important, if painstaking, work, especially since they’re a small team, it’s a mammoth task at hand, and there’s rarely any assistance from state and federal authorities.
Currently, there’s no real policy or task force in charge of identifying deceased migrants. Because of this, individuals are often reduced to a file number on a stone at the Sacred Heart Burial Park in Falfurrias (or at any other local cemetery), and a matching binder with incomplete records inside some dusty storage room—all with no DNA work done.
Perhaps talking about migrants’ deaths and reflecting on their arduous journeys through the desert will open up larger conversations. While legality can be complicated, humanity shouldn’t be.
Ivonne Spinoza is a South American trilingual Latina writer and Illustrator. She writes both for TV and about it, and her work aims to contribute to better representation while advancing equality. She mostly writes genre fiction and cultural analysis but will branch out quite often wherever her curious mind takes her. You can learn more at ivonnespinoza.com and find her everywhere online as @IvonneSpinoza.
Sources and Further Reading
1 “In Missing in Brooks County, the Missing Migrant Crisis Haunts South Texas” (Texas Observer)
“Death Valley for Migrants”: The Invisible Cost of Border Crossing | Blog | Independent Lens is written by Independent Lens for www.pbs.org