Dr. Corinne Stern’s lab and office overlooks a scenic view of a scaled down brush country typical of the topography of South Texas on the outskirts of Laredo in Webb County. The building is about a mile from the main road, next to the volunteer Fire Department on a dirt road. The drab, neat building in the style of old Mexico serves as the destination of migrants’ corpses found in Brooks County (see South Texas map). They had traveled by foot for miles, having crossed the Mexico-Texas border from various starting points including Mexico and Central America.
Dr. Stern’s “patients” met their fate from “natural” causes, for example, dehydration, heat stroke, and snake bites. In the case of many migrants whose bodies were recovered from the Rio Grande River in Webb County, the cause of death was drowning. In this part of the river, the water is deep and its currents strong, making the crossings more perilous than further south.
Dr. Stern’s job is to examine the corpses’ identifiable markings and any other pieces of artifacts (clothing, for example) in their possessions that would help in the identification process. Sometimes, valuable information is hidden underneath the soles of the shoes, or in secret cavity in leather belts. She meticulously examines every inch of the subject, holding true to her professional standards as evident in a Latin phrase written on an old piece of paper, framed, hanging in her office: Mortui Vivis Praecipant (“Let the Dead Teach the Living”). She brought the sign from New Orleans, while working there as an Examiner in the Reserves, right after Katrina hurricane plagued the city.
The information is entered in the “Missing Migrants” binder, which is used to corroborate data from other sources, mainly family members searching for their loved ones. If there is a probable match between the corpse and the family member, DNA samples are collected thus facilitating the identification process. Even so, all corpses’ DNA samples are collected eventually. Unclaimed bodies are held in the Lab’s morgue for 60 days before transferred to a funeral service for burial.
Dr. Stern’s office receives numerous calls from family members asking for any information that would lead to the whereabouts of their loved ones. The Mexican Consulate in Laredo also receives inquiry calls. In Brooks County, the Sheriff’s office assists in the identification of missing migrants, but their scope of assistance is extremely limited due to lack of resources.
Before contracting with Dr. Stern’s Office in August, 2013, Brooks County officials transported the corpses found within their boundaries to Elizondo Mortuary in Mission, TX. Unclaimed corpses were buried in the Falfurria’s cemetery (see photo gallery). Both Texas State University in San Marcos and Baylor University in Waco have lent their assistance and resources: the Baylor team has thus far exhumed 62 of the approximately 130 unknown or unclaimed corpses from the Falfurias cemetery, and transported these to Texas State where they are stored and processed for identification purposes.
Corpses that are decomposed down to their skeletal remains are transported to Forensic Anthropologist, Dr. Harrell Gil-King at the University of North Texas in Denton. Dr. Gil-King’s analysis serves to further identify the remains.
All information collected from various sources is entered into a national database, the United States Justice Department’s the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
The search and identification process is particularly complicated by the fact that many of the loved ones’ families live outside of the United States. The consulate offices are helpful to a certain extent. However, the migration factors have changed in the last decade or two. There are as many border crossers or more from Central America as there are from Mexico. Texas is now the leading border state with the most migrant deaths (see related article), yet the resources are unequally distributed, leaving offices such as the Brooks County Sheriff with very limited means by which to assist in the identification process.
The South Texas Human Rights Center has as one of its main goals to facilitate County officials in their work with migrant deaths.
In addition STHRC has worked with the Border Patrol and ranch owners in installing 21 water stations in an effort to prevent deaths among border crossers due to dehydration.
The STHRC headquarters in Falfurrias, coordinated by Mr. Eduardo Canales, works with the local community as well as the national and international agencies to provide assistance in assuring that the rights of migrants are respected and protected.
Contact Mr. Canales at (361) 946-5252.
Photos from May 17th visit to Dr. Stern’s office: