In the freezer of a small funeral home nearly 13 miles from the Texas-Mexico border, 22 bodies are stacked on plywood shelves, one on top of the other.
The bodies wrapped in white sheets have names, families and official countries of origin—Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, sometimes China or Pakistan. The bodies in black shrouds are the remains of the nameless and unclaimed, waiting to be identified.
For the past few years, the family-owned Elizondo Mortuary and Cremation Service in Mission, Texas, has been taking in the remains of undocumented immigrants found dead in nearby counties after crossing the border from Mexico. This year, however, they had to build an extra freezer. It’s become difficult to keep up with the rising tide of dead coming to them from across the Rio Grande Valley.
Crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally has always been dangerous, but this year heat and drought have made the journey particularly deadly. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, this part of the border has seen a sharp rise in both rescues and deaths of people crossing the border illegally. So far in 2012, agents have rescued more than 310 people, and found nearly 150 dead in the Rio Grande Valley—an increase of more than 200 percent over the last fiscal year.
This comes as migration across the U.S.-Mexico border has dropped to historic lows, falling nearly 62 percent over the last five years, according to numbers recently released by CBP. But the proportion of deaths to apprehensions is rising—suggesting that while fewer are crossing, more are dying.
Ground zero is over 70 miles north of the border, in Brooks County. Last year the remains of about 50 presumed undocumented immigrants were found in the county. This year, the tally has reached about 104, with nearly three months to go.
The rising number of unclaimed corpses marks a growing crisis for this cash-strapped county of fewer than 7,500 residents. Because Brooks has no coroner, it sends the bodies recovered on its vast cattle ranches to Elizondo in neighboring Hidalgo County. It costs, according to county officials, about $1,500 for each body to be processed.
Many of the migrants who are found dead in this part of South Texas end up buried in paupers’ graves, remembered only by their gender, case number and the name of the ranch where they died.
Since the mid-1990s, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has clamped down hard on border crossings. The agency has more than doubled in size since 2004, and now has 28,000 agents, nearly half of them in Texas. Fences, sensors, drones, checkpoints and disciplined, coordinated enforcement have choked off routes through urban areas that were once easily crossed.
Smugglers have adapted by moving into sparsely populated areas like the Sonoran desert in Arizona, and the west Rio Grande Valley.
“We’re starting to see these crossings more in these particular areas than we have in the past,” said Mendiola.
With triple-digit temperatures and wide deserts, these uncompromising landscapes are harder to patrol than populous areas on the border’s edge. They are also more dangerous for those crossing into the country.
“There’s no doubt that the increased vigilance has pushed people into these more hostile areas,” said Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, a professor of Mexican American Studies and coordinator of Arizona State University’s Binational Migration Institute. “Traditionally, people crossed in urban areas. If you cross into an urban area, you can find a way of making it. If you have to cross through these rural areas, you’re taking a big chance.”
Despite the rising danger and cost, people keep coming. Advocates and families say that with few legal avenues into the U.S., migrants feel this is the only way to make a better life.