Bodies of dead immigrants forces Texas county to make deep cuts

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by JASON WHITELY / WFAA

WFAA

Posted on January 31, 2014 at 8:38 AM

FALFURRIAS, Texas –- Border cities along the Rio Grande get a lot of attention in Texas with all the talk about immigration reform.

But Brooks County, 70 miles north of McAllen, is a poor area facing another big problem.

Dispatchers sent Deputy Elias Pompa to a call that has become routine here; a dead body discovered in the brush.

Dep. Pompa’s 4x4 Chevy Tahoe fought through the deep sand on a rutted road to get through this remote ranch. A buzzard circled overhead.

But a hundred yards into the brush sat the skeletal remains, a mobile phone, and a Mexican voter ID card issued to a 33-year-old man. Deputy Danny Davila believes the card likely belongs to this undocumented immigrant.

“As you can tell by the terrain,” Davila said, “it’s pretty bad out here. It’s literally sandy conditions. It’s like walking at the beach. They get tired and they succumb to the elements.”

These remains are 15 miles from the nearest road. Dep. Davila guesses they could have been here for weeks, but were only discovered on this day because Border Patrol was chasing another group of undocumented immigrants through the area.

After collecting the skeletal remains in the brush, Deputy Danny Davila bowed his head.

“This is their final resting spot,” he explained. “This is where they died –- in the middle of nowhere. I just offer up a prayer that they’re at peace.”

This dead immigrant is the third one Brooks County has found this year.

Why here? There’s an inland U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint south of Falfurrias on Highway 281. Illegal immigrants try to sneak around it and move through the brush, but the terrain is unforgiving.

U.S. Border Patrol handles live immigrants, but counties are responsible for dead ones. And that’s the problem here.

“They’re thinking they’re coming in to better themselves, and this is how they end up,” said Chief Dep. Benny Martinez, Brooks County Sheriff’s Office.

He thumbed through binders of unidentified bodies.

“A lot of these pictures are bad,” Martinez added.

Since 2009, 354 immigrants have been found dead in this county.

“This is not a way to die,” he said.

Each one costs local taxpayers a couple thousand dollars for recovery, body bag, and autopsy.

It got so expensive last year that the sheriff’s office ran out of money for gas. So for the first time, deputies are trying to do something.

“The total for the last 60 months has reached $628,172.98,” Martinez said.

That’s almost the sheriff’s office's entire annual budget.

Next month, the county will send the Texas Congressional delegation a letter essentially begging for reimbursement.

“My argument is, why do people have to die for someone to help us?” asked Brooks County Judge Raul Ramirez.

Oil and gas revenues have declined for years, but the expensive costs of dead immigrants have pushed the county’s checkbook further into the red.

Every county office has taken a 20 percent budget cut, each employee has lost three percent of his or her pay, and the county stopped paying for health care and benefits of employees’ families.

Another problem is Brooks County isn’t a border county, meaning it misses out on federal grants.

News 8's Jason Whitely: What’s the answer judge?
Judge Ramirez: For the federal government to declare us a border county.
Whitely: Just that declaration of being a border county will get you money?
Ramirez: Well, it’ll put us into the pie, and then you gotta apply for the pie.

But Brooks County doesn’t have much political influence, with its 7,000 citizens who are stuck paying the price for immigrants dying to get a better life.

E-mail jwhitely@wfaa.com

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