CBS 4 Special Report: Dying for the American Dream
Every year, hundreds of migrants attempt to cross the U.S. - Mexico border illegally through the Rio Grande Valley. Many of them die in the process.
So far this year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has assisted in nearly 1,200 migrant rescues. Around 100 migrants have died attempting to cross the border.
In response to the increasing migrant deaths, in 1998, the federal agency created a special operations rescue team called the Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue Unit. The team employs strategic rescue methods, including the use of canines to find missing and deceased migrants.
But despite being trained officers, supervisory agent Arnold Noyola says the bushland terrain, combined with the heat, can prove deadly.
“Although we are conditioned to be out here, any person in 100-degree weather, by 1 or 2’oclock can be totally dehydrated,” said Noyola.
To better keep track of the missing and unidentified migrants, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol implemented the Missing Migrant Initiative in 2015. The program also creates programs to prevent migrant deaths along the border, most recently, a plaque to remind migrants in distress to dial 911.
Despite the Rio Grande Valley’s proximity to the border, the area doesn’t have a medical examiner. Until area’s population reaches 1 million, the remains of migrants will be sent to four pathologists who are contracted by the county.
Dr. Norma Farley investigates cases of unidentified migrants who are found near the Rio Grande and Hidalgo County.
Farley and her small team of investigators use forensic techniques to identify remains, including macrophotography, a practice started with the help of the Missing Migrant Program.
In 2017, Farley’s office received the remains of 23 people, including two minors. Three of those bodies remain unidentified.
In certain cases, Farley must communicate with international forensic teams and consulates to get information about possible matches.
But Farley says some of the victims may leave behind deceiving clues, like carrying fraudulent identification cards.
“If that’s your ID and you are found and go to the hospital, you could be buried here with the wrong name and nationality and your family would never know what happened to you,” said Farley,
Meanwhile, agents like Hugo Vega, who leads the Missing Migrant Program in the Rio Grande Valley, urges people to refrain from crossing the border.
“It’s very dangerous,” said Vega. “The people who have made it and have perished unfortunately cannot tell you that because they are gone. But I’m sure if they could voice their concerns, it would be ‘don’t risk losing your life.”