FALFURRIAS, Texas (AP) - Officials in a rural South Texas county overwhelmed by immigrant deaths in recent years promised Wednesday to get to the bottom of why dozens of unidentified immigrants were improperly buried in a local cemetery.
Brooks County commissioners voted unanimously to move ahead with a preliminary inquiry led by the Texas Rangers that will aim to figure out who was responsible for the burials and whether any laws were broken.
“It’s very sad because Brooks County paid for a service for a decent and respectful burial for these migrants,” Commissioner Gloria Garza said.
Anthropologists working with the Reuniting Families project at the cemetery in Falfurrias exhumed 52 graves earlier this month, many that were unmarked. Some remains were just in body bags and garbage bags. In some cases, multiple sets of remains were found in single bag - making it impossible for the researchers to know how many individuals were recovered until an inventory can be done at the lab.
Researchers believe the bodies were buried between 2005 and 2009.
The team made a similar excavation at the cemetery in 2013, after which the county began contracting with a medical examiner to perform autopsies and take DNA samples on all new unidentified bodies.
Local officials believe the remains are of unidentified immigrants who entered the country without legal permission and perished in the desert ranchlands surrounding a Border Patrol highway checkpoint. Some are believed to have died in neighboring Jim Hogg County, a discovery that frustrated Brooks County officials.
District Attorney Carlos Omar Garcia said he was working to help the Rangers gather as much information as quickly as possible.
County Judge Raul Ramirez said the county paid the funeral home Funeraria Del Angel Howard-Williams $450 to $740 per body, but it was not immediately clear to county officials whether that was just for retrieving and transporting the bodies or also paid for burial.
“If this was your loved one this happened to, you’d be really upset,” Ramirez said. He and other officials met Tuesday with state officials in Austin and received a commitment for $150,000 to help Brooks County cover the cost of the autopsies they now give every unidentified body.
Jessica McDunn, a spokeswoman for the funeral home’s parent company, Houston-based Service Corporation International, declined to answers questions, but offered a prepared statement.
“The deaths of these individuals are tragic and difficult on many levels. For years now, Howard-Williams Funeral Home has worked closely with federal and local officials to handle these situations. We believe that all human remains should be handled with dignity, care and respect,” the statement said.
Ramirez and others pointed out that while the mishandling of the bodies deserves attention, it shouldn’t supersede the fact that immigrants continue to die.
Brooks County has recovered 33 bodies so far this year and is headed into its hottest months.