New Law Addresses Rising Death Toll of Unidentified Border Crossers
More than 1,000 immigrants have died in the Rio Grande Valley since 2005, the majority of whose bodies remain unidentified, because local authorities lack the resources to investigate their deaths and to extract their DNA.
But a bill signed June 22 by Gov. Greg Abbott tasks the Texas Forensic Science Commission (TFSC) with establishing methods of extracting DNA and other forensic evidence from unidentified bodies found less than 120 miles from the Texas border.
This first-of-its-kind legislation was attached as a last minute amendment to Senate Bill 1287 during its final reading in the House. Authored by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, the bill addressed the licensing and regulation of forensic analysts and TFSC’s administration.
But state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, saw a different opportunity.
“It was spontaneous. I just noticed the subject of the bill and it got me out of my chair,” Canales said. “I ran to the front of the house and said, I have an amendment to this bill, hold on.”
The bill narrowly passed the House by a two-vote margin and Abbott signed it into law along with Canales’ amendment.
“I think it was one of my most exciting moments in the legislator,” Canales said. “I was a little over jubilant that it passed especially with the anti-immigrant sentiment that exists in the Texas legislature. I think it’s a great victory.”
Canales grew up in Jim Wells County about 60 miles north of the Rio Grande, not far from the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Brooks County. The rugged ranchland last year surpassed the Arizona desert as the deadliest for undocumented border crossers in the United States, with 115 recovered bodies.
Still, many of the surrounding counties north of the border lack the financial assistance needed to deal with this growing death toll, Canales said.
“I’ve been personally involved in trying to find a solution to not only the financial burden that exists for border counties but finding a manner to properly bury and respect human life regardless of where they come from,” Canales said.
Brooks County remains the epicenter of migrant deaths in South Texas, where nearly 30 bodies have been recovered so far this year and hundreds are buried at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias. Those numbers are down from 2013 and 2014, but the area remains a focus for authorities and immigrant advocates.
The South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias has been documenting the deaths of these migrants as part of their fight for the rights of the living, the dead and the disappeared, on this migrant trail. Eddie Canales leads the local chapter and serves as board president of the national network.
“One of our goals is to find out how many undocumented or unidentified border crosses have perished in 18 border counties in the state of Texas dating back to the 1980’s.” Eddie Canales said. “DNA testing is required by law for all unidentified remains but is not always being carried out which makes it more difficult.”
Last month, he celebrated the passing of Senate Bill 1485 by Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, which will make death records of unidentified persons available to the public after one year. The previous waiting period was 25 years making it very hard to unite and bring closure to the countless families with missing loved ones, Eddie Canales said.
Legislators also approved $2.3 million in new funding for the University of North Texas Health Sciences Center and the Missing Persons and Human Identification Program to help expedite the process of creating DNA profiles of migrant remains.
It takes anywhere from six months to a year to complete the DNA profile and to enter the information into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, prolonging grief for families seeking closure, Eddie Canales said.
Rep. Canales’ amendment will force TFSC to create a manual for the postmortem examination and identification process of unidentified border crossers, similar to the one published by the Binational Migrant Institute last month.
“I think that it’s unquestionable what role immigrants play in our daily lives in our economy,” he said. “Not only do we need to respect what they do for our country but we need to respect human life in death.”