While distracted with the tedious intricacies of a national financial disaster, the United States Federal Government fails to acknowledge the presence of an ongoing humanitarian crisis in its own backyard.
About 70 miles north of the Texas-Mexico border, people meet dry air, unforgiving brush and the possibility of stumbling upon human remains.
Welcome to Brooks County, Texas, where the bodies of 129 undocumented immigrants were discovered by ranchers and county officials in 2012. The immigrant death rates in Brooks County are second only to Pima County, Ariz., with 157 deaths.
Over fall break, I traveled to Brooks County to understand the situation first-hand as part of a documentary project for the Documentary Workshop course at Ithaca College. Traveling with deputies at the Brooks County Sheriff’s Department, it is easy to see how issues with immigration are too large for one county to tackle.
Chief Deputy Urbino Martinez explained that with stricter immigration laws in Arizona, the majority of undocumented immigrants funnel through south Texas. Some counties, such as Brooks, have border-patrol checkpoints, though they are not technically considered “border counties.” The federal government considers the 32 Texan counties that lie within 62 miles of the Rio Grande River “border counties.” The federal government gives non-border counties less funding than border counties, even if non-border counties face immense traffic from immigrants. Less funding means that Brooks County operates on limited resources — resources that could mean the difference between life and death.
While passing through the Brooks County area in hope of reaching Houston, migrants from Latin America, Mexico and sometimes even areas as far aways as China are often left behind by hired Mexican guides, known as “coyotes.” According to local ranchers and officials, immigrants must contend with sharp mesquite trees, rattlesnakes, limited water sources and extreme temperatures while trekking through the brush. Many people often die of dehydration, while others die from contaminants in the water — when they are able to find any — in animal troughs.
Though many migrants are dying of dehydration, the federal government has not offered any immediate solution to save lives. Locals have taken it upon themselves to set up efficient water storage containers. Installed on ranch owners’ private lands in Brooks County, the containers provide immigrants with fresh water and a shot at survival in the harsh terrain. Those who do not survive are taken care of mainly by Brooks County money. It costs nearly $2,000 in order to process, transport and autopsy a single body.
Many citizens expressed frustration with the federal government for putting immigration reform on the back burner. If the process to gain documents to live in the U.S. were easier, people would not feel the need to make the life-threatening trek through Brooks County. As Chief Martinez said, the majority of the people crossing already have family members and loved ones here in the U.S. They simply want to work.
As I watched the deportation of a 15-year-old girl, I couldn’t help but be critical of the blind eye the government turns to this life-or-death issue. Until more media, politicians and national human-rights organizations realize the immediacy of immigration issues in counties not considered to be on the border, Brooks County and the migrants passing through it will suffer.