Mass Migrant Graves Discovered in Texas

Jun 23, 2014 at 2:29 PM ET

Update: Senator Juan Hinojosa has called for an investigation into the discovery. He and the district attorney are meeting this week to file a formal request with the Texas Department of Public Safety. “These people deserve a proper investigation and a proper burial,” he said. A separate inquiry by local authorities is currently underway.

Researchers have uncovered a series of mass graves in south Texas containing the bodies of scores of unidentified migrants. Exhuming 52 plots in the Sacred Heart Burial Park in Falfurrias, anthropologists found the remains of multiple individuals who had been stuffed into garbage, shopping and body bags and dumped into crowded graves.

The discovery was made by professors and students from the University of Indianapolis and Baylor University, who are working on a multi-year project to identify the bodies of undocumented migrants who died while crossing the border into the United States. They disinterred 110 corpses with little fanfare in 2013, and made this latest grisly find when they resumed work two weeks ago, according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

Some bones and decomposed bodies were simply dumped straight into the dirt, while multiple skulls were found inside biohazard bags that had been placed between the scant few coffins. Due to the haphazard nature of the burials, officials haven’t yet determined how many bodies were found at the site.

“To me it’s just as shocking as the mass grave that you would picture in your head, and it’s just as disrespectful,” Krista Latham, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Indianapolis, told the newspaper.

The remains were buried in the Brooks County-owned section of the cemetery by funeral home Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams, which was bought in 1999 by Service Corporation International. County officials have been paying Howard-Williams $450 for each migrant body it buries—most of them were recovered from the surrounding desert—for 16 years. The individuals discovered in the mass graves are believed to have been buried there between 2005 and 2009. The bodies of approximately 120 migrants are found in Brooks County each year.

When Baylor anthropologist Lori Baker approached the funeral home for documents pertaining to the plots, directors claimed to have none. However, Jennifer McDunn, a spokesperson for Service Corporation International, told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times that it does have some records, “but this does not amount to confirmation that Howard-Williams was involved in depositing the remains in the manner the researchers described.” The company is refusing to release the documents.

“Because of the sensitive nature of our business, it is not our general practice to share our records publicly, no matter the decedent or the family we serve,” McDunn said. “I do want to let you know it is our policy to treat the decedent with care, to treat them just like we would treat anyone else.”

Beyond the clear moral transgression, insufficiently recorded mass graves are illegal. The Texas Health and Safety Code states that information regarding burials, including dates, locations and names, must be kept on file. That responsibility falls to the owner of the cemetery. However, complaints about wrongdoing are usually made by family members—an issue when it comes to unidentified migrants, whose families have no way of knowing where they ended up.

Immigrant rights advocate Eddie Canales says situations like this result from the belief that it’s acceptable to view migrants as second-class. “I think it’s very hard for people to connect…the fact that these were human beings,” he says. “It just goes to the language, to the words, and words mean a lot: ‘All these were illegals.’ …Even in death, they wound up not getting the proper respect.”