A Path to America, Marked by More and More Bodies


SAN MARCOS, TEX. — Case 0435 died more than a mile from the nearest road, with an unscuffed MacGregor baseball in his backpack. Case 0469 was found with a bracelet, a simple green ribbon tied in a knot. Case 0519 carried Psalms and Revelations, torn from a Spanish Bible. Case 0377  kept a single grain of rice inside a hollow cross. One side of the grain read Sara, and the other read Rigo.

The belongings are part of a border-crossers’ morgue at a Texas State University lab here — an inventoried collection of more than 2,000 objects and 212 bodies, the vast majority unidentified.

All 212 were undocumented immigrants who died in Texas trying to evade Border Patrol checkpoints by walking across the rugged terrain. Most died from dehydration, heatstroke or hypothermia. Even as the number of people caught trying to illegally enter the United States from Mexico has dropped in recent months, the bodies remain a constant, grim backdrop to the national debate over immigration.

“When we get them, we assign them a case number because we have to have a way of tracking cases, but no one deserves to be just a number,” said Timothy P. Gocha, a forensic anthropologist with Operation Identification, a project at Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Center that analyzes the remains and personal items of the immigrants to help identify them. “The idea is to figure out who they are, and give them their name back.”

The collection in San Marcos represents only a fraction of the total deaths. Hundreds of immigrants have died crossing the border in Texas in recent years, and hundreds of others have died in the three other states that share a border with Mexico — Arizona, California and New Mexico.

In South Texas, the number of deaths has overwhelmed some local officials and made the grisly discovery of decomposing bodies a commonplace occurrence. The body count since 2014 stands at nine at one ranch, 17 at another and 31 at a third. A former governor of Texas, Mark W. White Jr., called the authorities in 2014 after he found part of a human skull on a quail-hunting trip near a Border Patrol checkpoint.

“It was an awful thing,” said Mr. White, 77. “The first question that was asked of us was, ‘Is the body fresh?’ The lady who was answering the call said, ‘We can’t pick him up today because we have three fresh ones we have to pick up today.’”

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