South Texas lawmaker: Immigrants' mass graves are a crime

By Mark Collette

4:32 PM, Jun 22, 2014
CORPUS CHRISTI - A South Texas lawmaker has asked the Department of Public Safety to secure a Brooks County cemetery as a crime scene after the discovery of mass graves of unidentified immigrants.

“There is no doubt that a crime has taken place, and we need to protect the site to prevent any evidence from being damaged, tampered with, or destroyed,” said Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, in a statement issued during the weekend. “Just as important, we need to send the message to the world that in our state, we do not stain the honor of loved ones who have passed away.”

The Texas Rangers plan to meet with local officials Monday to determine the proper course of action.

Canales’ request follows similar remarks by state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, who called for a state investigation into the mass graves .

Researchers working on a project to identify immigrants who die entering the United States said they exhumed 52 graves in the Sacred Heart Burial Park in Falfurrias in early June.

They couldn’t immediately count how many people were buried because the remains were intermingled. They found instances of multiple people in one body bag, bones buried in trash bags, and bones buried in no container at all, said Lori Baker, an anthropologist at Baylor University. Last year the researchers exhumed 110 bodies as part of the same project. They expect to exhume remains from a third section of the cemetery in 2015. Grave markers and markings on body bags indicated the remains were placed there between 2005 and 2012. County officials say that for as long as they can remember, the local funeral home, Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams, was paid to handle burials of unidentified immigrants.

Grave markers bore the funeral home’s logo, and one set of bones was buried in a kitchen garbage bag tucked inside a gift bag bearing the Dignity Memorial logo, one of the brands belonging to the home’s parent company, Houston-based Service Corp. International. The company said it is reviewing records but could not confirm that the funeral home was involved in the mass burials.

Canales said he has asked the Brooks County auditor to provide records of payments, invoices and other documents pertaining to the burials.

“The release of the documents I am requesting will help all of us who love Brooks County to let the world know that we have respect for all people, and send a strong message that any such disregard for honoring the lives of people and their loved ones will never be tolerated,” Canales said.

The lawmaker said he was angered after reading a description of the burial practices in the Caller-Times.

“I know we share the same frustration, shock, and disbelief that something so horrific could transpire in our own backyard,” he wrote in his request to the auditor.

The increasing pressure for a response to the mass graves comes as Texas and the nation try to handle tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who entered the country illegally since last fall, and who continue to arrive and fill shelters to capacity. Many are fleeing violence and unrest in Central America.

In Brooks County, hundreds of undocumented immigrants have died in the past several years trying to avoid a Border Patrol checkpoint on U.S. Highway 281, about 70 miles from the border. They perish of dehydration, exposure and illness after setting off on foot on a trek of 30 miles or longer through vast, remote mesquite thickets on private ranches, where summer temperatures regularly reach 100 degrees or more.

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