“Missing in Brooks County”: Thousands of Migrants Denied Due Process at Border Have Died in Desert
We continue to look at the humanitarian crisis along the border, where more people are dying trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border than ever before, as President Biden has increased funding for border enforcement and militarization even as he vowed not to expand Trump’s border wall. We go to Brooks County in South Texas, which has recorded at least 98 migrant deaths so far this year, nearly triple the number from 2020. “People are being expelled without any due process regarding their asylum claim,” says Eddie Canales, director of the South Texas Human Rights Center. “There really hasn’t been a change in policy,” said Canales, when asked about Biden’s approach to asylum seekers. We also speak with filmmaker Lisa Molomot, co-director of the new documentary “Missing in Brooks County,” which follows the story of two families searching for lost loved ones who went missing there after crossing the border, driven further into the desert by inland checkpoints and the policy in place since 1994 called “prevention through deterrence.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
We continue to look at the humanitarian crisis along the southern border of the United States, where more people are dying trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border than ever before, as President Biden increases funding for border enforcement and militarization even as he vows not to expand Trump’s border wall. While official counts show around 8,000 people have died trying to cross since the 1994 start of a “prevention through deterrence” policy under President Clinton, the deaths are undercounted. Some estimate as many as 80,000 people have disappeared across the borderlands.
Well, we now turn to Brooks County in South Texas, which recorded nearly triple the number of migrant deaths this year already so far: 98 people. And those are just the ones we know about. The news outlet Border Report said the bodies of more than two dozen migrants who died as they attempted to journey north through Brooks County are now being held in a temporary mobile morgue. This week, the Brooks County sheriff met with Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott to request more support. This comes as counties near the Texas border are seeing a higher number of migrant deaths as more people seeking asylum try to cross through the desert to avoid border points of entry, where most people are now blocked from applying for refuge and are expelled without due process.
The crisis is documented in the new film Missing in Brooks County. This is the trailer.
UNIDENTIFIED: The federal government thinks if you put the Border Patrol station 60 miles north, José is going to be stupid enough to go through there, and then you’ll catch him. And that’s not true. The Border Patrol station is making these people walk in that deep sand with very little water.
OPERATOR: Sheriff’s Office. How may I help you?
MICHELLE CHINOS: I’m trying to have some information regarding a family member who is missing.
OPERATOR: There’s been a lot of, a lot of missing people.
UNIDENTIFIED: We realized there was a big problem along the border. And I don’t think anybody realized just how big it was. Thousands of people have died.
UNIDENTIFIED: An illegal alien crosser is an illegal alien crosser. It’s black and white; it’s not gray. We’re in a war zone here.
EDDIE CANALES: This is the South Texas Human Rights Center.
CALLER: [translated] I heard you find missing people?
UNIDENTIFIED: It’s like you just walk off the Earth. It’s as if you never existed.
AMY GOODMAN: Missing in Brooks County follows two families as they go to Brooks County to find out what happened to their loved ones who they think went missing in that area. In this clip, Omar Roman and Michelle [Chinos] look for Omar’s brother.
OPERATOR 1: Sheriff’s Office. How may I help you?
MICHELLE CHINOS: Yes, good afternoon. I’m actually trying to have some information regarding a family member who is missing. Does Starr County happen to have any information of persons that they have found in Starr County? Brooks County has binders of all the remains and bodies that they have found.
OPERATOR 1: There’s been a lot of, a lot of missing people. That would be the main office, ma’am.
MICHELLE CHINOS: OK.
OPERATOR 2: Let me go transfer you. Let me transfer you to the jail, OK?
MICHELLE CHINOS: OK.
OPERATOR 1: Let me pass you back to communications and ask them if they have any information on this. Hold on.
OPERATOR 2: Jail transferred you back. Hello?
MICHELLE CHINOS: Yes?
OPERATOR 2: Do you mind if I transfer you to the secretary, ma’am?
MICHELLE CHINOS: OK, that’s fine.
OPERATOR 2: OK, ma’am.
OPERATOR 1: Usually when they find somebody — right? — we usually just — we go to the regular cemetery.
MICHELLE CHINOS: But in — where’s the reports?
OPERATOR 1: I mean, let me — let me check. I don’t — because I think it’s — it’s with the investigators. No, I think it’s the county cemetery or the city cemetery.
AMY GOODMAN: A scene from Missing in Brooks County. The film also follows Border Patrol agent Alex Jara, after Eddie Canales with the South Texas Human Rights Center asks for help with a family searching for their missing loved one.
EDDIE CANALES: Craig, this is Eddie Canales. Are you in the office? You’re at the Border Patrol station? Hey, on that case of Juan Maceda, I got a call from his dad. I think I got some good information. Yeah, it’s definitely the Mariposa Ranch.
ALEX JARA: In this ranch, as you can see, everything looks the same. So, a person could say, “Well, we were waiting by a fence,” and the fence is the same three miles back and right here. So, for us to find that one place is very, very hard. Very hard. And this is the third one in a week. It used to get to me. So, now I kind of — you know, I say — we don’t call them people anymore. We call them “bodies.” Because if you start calling them people, then it starts getting to you.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Brooks County, where we’re joined by Eddie Canales, the director of the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, Texas. He’s one of the people you just heard in that clip. Also with us, Lisa Molomot, who is the co-director of this powerful documentary, Missing in Brooks County. The film will be streaming on iTunes and Amazon starting November 2nd and will air on PBS Independent Lens next January.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Eddie, this is just devastating. You have found — what? — 99 bodies and remains in Brooks County alone? Is it increasing under President Biden?
EDDIE CANALES: The increase of migration has begun since the beginning of the Biden administration. And, I mean, the number of people that we’ve found is really based on our cooperation and our working relationship with Border Patrol in terms of the families calling here. I have families here, representatives from different countries right now, that are still searching for their missing loved ones. They’re in the background right now with me. We’re doing a two-day tour here in South Texas. And the number has increased. There has been 99 recoveries of bodies and skeletal remains in Brooks County alone this year.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Eddie, what do you think is driving the increase? Of course, some Republicans are insisting that migrants are coming because they believe that the Biden administration will be — has a more relaxed policy, so that that is what’s driving migration. Others say that it is actually the worsening conditions in Central America and other parts of Latin America during the COVID pandemic that is actually driving the increase. What’s your sense?
EDDIE CANALES: The difference is that — well, there is still Title 42 that’s still in place, so the majority of people are being expelled continually under the Biden administration. But the difference is the unaccompanied children are being — there’s been a process for Central American children coming in, and then the families are not being separated. But the policy is still the same regarding Title 42. A lot of people, you know, are being expelled without any due process regarding their asylum claim. So, all the Haitians are being expelled. You know, most single males and single women are being expelled, so that there really hasn’t been a change in the policy regarding — it’s just the question of the children, the unaccompanied children, that have been processed and situated with sponsors or family members already in this country.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And have you seen a difference in how officials treat Mexican children who are found unaccompanied at the border versus Central American children?
EDDIE CANALES: Well, let me — I failed to mention there in that remark about the children, all Mexican unaccompanied children are immediately expelled back into Mexico, because it’s right there next door in that regard. So, the process for children that are fleeing basically the same conditions, the same that exist in the Central American countries, is, you know, these children are being sent back to Mexico in that regard. And that’s been the same policy since Obama was in place and the Trump administration was in place. So Mexican children are not getting their due process.
AMY GOODMAN: Eddie, I’m going to ask if people behind you can come forward and say their names and their loved one who is missing. And as you organize that, I want to go to Lisa Molomot, who is the co-director of Missing in Brooks County, an astounding, heartrending, heartbreaking film, Lisa. Talk about why you did it and what you’re hoping to accomplish with it.
LISA MOLOMOT: Well, originally, we set out to make a very different film about a forensic scientist, but my co-director and I, Jeff Bemiss, the co-director, and I, went to Brooks County with this forensic scientist, and we discovered what was going on there. And we immediately knew that the story we were going to tell was a much bigger story than we had initially thought. And this was in 2015. So, over the course of four years, we kept going back to Brooks County for a couple of weeks every three months and really just dug deeper and deeper into the story, and eventually found the Romans, who are the family featured in our film.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what happened to the Romans and what they found.
LISA MOLOMOT: So, their son, and in the case of the siblings, their brother, grew up in Houston. He came to the U.S. when he was 5. He grew up in Houston. And in his early thirties, he was deported back to Mexico, to a country he had never really lived. And he was there for a couple of years and decided to come back to the U.S. to be with his family and to live, you know, in the country where he grew up. And on his way back, he went missing in Brooks County. And his family went in search for him. No answers.
And they eventually found us through our website. They were googling “missing in Brooks County,” and they found our film. And so, we met them, and we talked to them about the film that we were making. They talked to us about their story, and we asked if they wanted to participate. And they went back and discussed it amongst each other. And the next morning, we were filming with them. So, we followed them going back to Brooks County once again to work with Eddie Canales to try to find their loved one, Homero. And they’re still looking for him.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Lisa, the population of Brooks County is just about 7,000 people, and yet estimates are that as many as 2,000 migrants are presumed dead since 2008. Can you talk about the county itself?
LISA MOLOMOT: I mean, it’s mostly private ranchland. If anyone knows anything about Texas, a lot of Texas, and especially South Texas, is these really vast ranches. One ranch, the King Ranch, is bigger than the state of Rhode Island, so that gives you a sense of how vast these ranches are. And migrants are dropped off south of the checkpoint so they can circumvent the checkpoint, and they walk on these private ranches for days, and they run out of water. It’s very, very hot in South Texas. So that’s how they are dying and going missing.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me go back to Eddie Canales. You are surrounded — our radio listeners can’t see, but our TV viewers can see — by people holding pictures, Eddie. Can you each say your name and your loved one who you’re looking for?
EDDIE CANALES: Digas sus nombres.
ARACELY DE MEJÍIA: Mi nombre es Aracely de Mejía, y busco a mi hijo Edwin Alexander Colindres Ramírez.
KEREN CARRASCO: Mi nombre es Keren Carrasco y busco a mi hermano Aarón Eleazar Carrasco Turcios.
EDDIE CANALES: ¿De dónde es usted?
KEREN CARRASCO: Soy de Honduras y mi hermano tiene 9 años de desaparecido.
EDDIE CANALES: ¿Y usted?
ÁNGELA LACAYO: Mi nombre es Ángela Lacayo, soy de Honduras, y busco a mi hijo Jarvin Josué Velázquez Lacayo.
AMY GOODMAN: Eddie, we thank —
IRMA YOLANDA PÉREZ: Mi nombre es Irma Yolanda Pérez, vengo de Guatemala, y ando en busca de mi hijo Gerber Estuardo García Pérez, que desapareció hace once años el 10 de noviembre.
AMY GOODMAN: Migrants from Honduras and Guatemala. Eddie, your final thoughts?
EDDIE CANALES: Well, again, this is a constant situation with the families that are calling us and here at the center in terms of the search. And this delegation of families are here in the United States to bring attention to the situation and try to figure out, you know, what are the obstacles that was preventing them from being able to find their loved ones that are missing, have been missing for a long time.
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