The Missing Migrants of South Texas

As soon as Eduardo (Eddie) Canales walked into the office of the South Texas Human Rights Center on a hot day in mid-July, his phone rang. The nonprofit’s mission is to “end death and suffering on the Texas/Mexico border,” and, as the co-founder and sole full-time staff member, Canales is always on the clock. This time, the caller was a man in New York named Efraín. He explained that his wife, a Guatemalan woman, had crossed the border in mid-June, near McAllen, and had not been heard from since.

Canales, an irrepressibly genial man in his mid-seventies, pulled a blank form from a stack and began noting down pertinent information: the woman’s birthday (January 25, 1990); her distinguishing features (gold teeth); the languages she spoke (a little Spanish, but primarily an Indigenous language). “After she crossed, they couldn’t get in touch with her,” Canales explained after he hung up. “Maybe they took away her phone.” The calls are often like this, from people who are sometimes panicked, sometimes stoic, but all facing the same crisis: someone they love crossed the border illegally, then went missing. Canales’s phone pinged—Efraín was sending pictures of his wife. In one, she leaned to the right and glanced at the camera with a shy, closed-mouth smile. Canales looked at her face for a moment. Then he called a local sheriff’s deputy to see if any bodies had been found recently.

In late June, fifty-three people died after being abandoned in a sweltering shipping container, the deadliest migrant-smuggling incident in decades. Those deaths, gruesome in their particularities, were part of a larger phenomenon. Last year, six hundred and fifty-one people died attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, the highest count since the International Organization for Migration began tracking the numbers, in 2014.

More than a hundred of those deaths happened in Brooks County, a sparsely populated part of South Texas—one dead migrant for every sixty residents.

Falfurrias, the biggest town in Brooks County, has one of the state’s busiest border checkpoints. Migrants often try to skirt the checkpoint by crossing nearby ranches, but the landscape can be disorienting and the heat punishing. Before the S.T.H.R.C. opened, Brooks County, which is one of the poorest in the state, had few resources to handle missing-migrant cases. Nora Salinas worked as an administrative assistant at the Brooks County sheriff’s department from 2009 to 2011, when “we started to get the real high volume” of migrant deaths, she told me. Because she speaks Spanish, other assistants would pass along calls from people searching for their missing family members. “This one girl who worked there, she would always say, ‘Nora, it’s someone speaking foreign,’ ” Salinas said. She would try to help out the callers, but there was no real system in place to figure out if the person they were looking for was in Border Patrol custody, or missing, or lying unidentified in the county morgue. Salinas put together a binder with information about all the bodies found on ranches. When families called, she would flip through to see if any of the recovered bodies matched. “I’ve always thought, If my children leave this country and go somewhere else and something happened to them, I want to be able to call and have somebody on the other side of the line answer me and lead me in the correct way and not give me the runaround,” she said. “I want to be able to ask, ‘Where did my daughter go? Where did my son go? Where did you find them?’ ”

Canales was raised in a colonia outside Corpus Christi. “I didn’t live in a house with plumbing until sixth grade,” he told me. As a young man, he joined La Raza Unida, a political party advocating for Chicano rights, and later worked as a union organizer. In 2012, the remains of a hundred and twenty-nine bodies were found in Brooks County, the highest number ever recorded. The next year, Canales started the S.T.H.R.C. Initially, he aimed to put water stations along known migration routes, in order to prevent people from succumbing to thirst or drinking contaminated water from cow troughs. Humanitarian groups in Arizona and California had been providing aid to migrants for years—and sometimes getting arrested for it—but doing this work in Texas came with a unique set of challenges. Nearly all the land in Texas’s border region is privately owned, which means that any project is contingent on the coöperation of landowners.

One of the first landowners Canales approached was Presnall Cage, the owner of a nearly fifty-thousand-acre property near the checkpoint called Cage Ranch. Cage was conservative, with hard-line views on immigration, but he listened to Canales’s proposal. “In 2012, his son died,” Canales said. “And that year there were, I think, sixteen recovered bodies on his ranch.” After a few meetings with Canales and a discussion with the local sheriff, Cage agreed to let the S.T.H.R.C. put water stations on his land.

“He’d just seen too much death,” Canales said. When Canales spoke with other ranchers, he was careful to pitch the project as apolitical. “I tell them, ‘If there’s water available, they’re less likely to come knocking on your door.’ ” These days, Canales has about forty water stations on eight ranches throughout the county.

But, despite the center’s work, migrants were still going missing in Brooks County. Those losses were visible around Falfurrias in the form of flyers with missing migrants’ photos, posted by family members who’d sometimes travelled hundreds of miles seeking information. Soon, Canales became known as someone who could help loved ones navigate the baffling process of searching for a missing person across geographic and linguistic barriers. His phone number circulated among migrant-assistance networks and Facebook groups, and he got calls at all hours. He developed good relationships with the sheriff’s department and some Border Patrol agents, who shared information—like Salinas’s binders—with him.

In 2018, Salinas was elected justice of the peace in Brooks County, which meant that she worked with Canales more frequently. It also meant that, when a body was discovered, she was called to the scene to pronounce it dead. Her first case, days after she took the job, involved skeletal remains scattered on Cage Ranch. After she got home that night, she couldn’t bring herself to cook, so she and her husband ate Whataburger instead. Since then, the task has become routine, if no less traumatizing. “I had a female last year, my age or a year or two younger, like forty-eight,” Salinas told me. “The family found out that [smugglers] had left her behind. This was June. The family comes down from Oklahoma, and they’re sitting at the gate to the Mariposa Ranch, because they had G.P.S. coordinates that she was in there. But they’re not going to be let in, because it’s a private ranch. All day, they’re back and forth to the sheriff’s department, to the gate. They’re calling dispatch: ‘This is our aunt, this is our aunt.’ They think she’s alive in there. Finally, Border Patrol finds her. She was really deep in there, and she was already decomposing. We picked her up, and when we came out their car was gone. I call them, and I tell them I have bad news for them. You hear the screaming and crying. [The smugglers] are always going to say that they left them alive. They never say they’re dead—they don’t say that four-letter word. We have to tell them they’re dead. I filled up three books last year. That’s how many we had—a hundred and nineteen. That family, they wanted to see her. I said, ‘You don’t want to see what I saw.’ To this very day, the brother calls me and tells me, ‘I still miss my sister.’ ”

alinas lost her bid for reëlection earlier this year, and Canales hired her to work part time for the center. “I was afraid of what people were going to say. It’s a small town,” she said. “But I care about people. It doesn’t matter who is missing out there. They have loved ones.” That morning, Canales told Salinas the information he’d received from Efraín: “June 20th, that was the day she disappeared. So I’m just going to check the records of the incident reports.”

“Skeletal or intact?” Salinas asked.

“Intact, I think.”

Canales scrolled through until he found a photograph of a body, discovered on July 1st, that fit the general description of Efraín’s wife. The woman was splayed on the grass, her face discolored. From the angle of the image, it was difficult to see her face clearly, or perhaps it was just impossible to imagine that the contorted body and the woman smiling shyly were the same person. Salinas peered at the form Canales had filled out. “Is it her? She was little,” she said, and looked back at the photograph, uncertain. “And this one looks like she was little, too.”

In many rural counties, when officials couldn’t identify a body, they would bury it, sometimes in an unmarked grave. (Brooks County ended the practice in 2013.) This is illegal under Texas law, which mandates that unidentified bodies undergo DNA sampling. Operation Identification, a humanitarian program at Texas State University, in San Marcos, run by Kate Spradley, a forensic anthropologist, has been working to locate these graves, disinter the bodies for DNA testing, and repatriate them. “The Sheriff is the reason they have turned the county around, and now they have the best practices in the state, for a county without a medical examiner,” she told me. These days, thanks to coöperation between local agencies and the S.T.H.R.C., Brooks County has a better system for handling remains than many much larger, better resourced counties. Forensic techniques, such as rapid DNA testing and fingerprint analysis (enabled in part by controversial Homeland Security programs) mean that far fewer bodies go unidentified. Canales told me, of the hundred and nineteen sets of remains recovered in Brooks County last year, all but ten have been identified. “It’s really come a long way,” Salinas said. “From the wrong has come right.” But other South Texas counties still lag behind. “I’ve got friends in other counties who call us and say, ‘We have no idea what to do,’ ” she remarked.

Between 2015 and 2020, about fifty bodies were recovered each year in Brooks County, according to an S.T.H.R.C. report. Then came Title 42, a policy enacted by the Trump Administration at the start of the covid-19 pandemic that closed ports of entry and blocked most avenues for asylum claims, ostensibly for public-health reasons. The policy, which is still in place in a modified form, has increased business for smuggling cartels and spurred people to cross in more dangerous places.

“Before Title 42, the calls we got used to be, like, eighty-per-cent apprehended, twenty-per-cent missing,” Canales said. “Now it’s flipped—it’s more like twenty-per-cent apprehended, eighty-per-cent missing.” So far this year, there have been nearly seventy recoveries of remains in Brooks County, putting 2022 on track to be the deadliest year on record.

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Rachel Monroe