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Identifying dead border crossers process extended due to pandemic

Identifying people who tried and failed to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally is an all too often task for the Webb County Medical Examiner, but adding to the pandemic families of the deceased must wait up to 14 or 16 months.
Published: Oct. 19, 2020 at 10:38 PM CDT
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LAREDO, Tex. (KGNS) - We’ve reported many foiled human smuggling attempts, some through vehicles at the border and others by foot.

In either instance, it usually involves exposure to some extreme south Texas temperatures.

KGNS spoke with the Webb County Medical Examiner about some of the possible tragic consequences they often see.

At the Webb County Medical Examiner’s Office, KGNS’s own Ashley Soriano masked up, put on a gown, and shoe coverings to get an inside look into the medical examiner’s duties during a pandemic, and of course trying to identify deceased border crossers.

“So this individual was found in Webb County on a ranch,” Dr. Corinne Stern said.

This means a John Doe is missing, dead, and a family wondering where he is....

“Most likely his ID will come from DNA.”

Identifying people who tried and failed to cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally is an all too often task for the Webb County medical examiner.

Dr. Stern services a total of 12 counties, so she is always busy, but adding a pandemic to the mix has made the processing times much longer.

“Border crossers are on my table quite a bit longer than an average patient would be because we’re having to do some extra steps to make a positive identification," Dr. Stern said. “The lab was able to turn DNA in about eight months. Now it’s taking about 12 months.”

The Mexican Consul of Protection in Laredo says he’s even seeing those wait times extended to 14 or 16 months.

That’s a year or more at the least that a family is left questioning the unknown.

“Most of them want some kind of closure, so taking this long is really hard for the families," said Carlos Enrique Gonzalez, Consul of Protection.

“That need of wanting to know, ‘Where’s my dad? He was supposed to be here five days ago,’” Dr. Stern said.

She also says she never relies on an ID card to identify the person, but it’s a starting point. She may even find a phone number to call.

“I have a translator, and I’ll say, ‘My name is Dr. Stern. I’m calling from the Webb County Medical Examiner’s Office from Laredo, Texas. Do you have a family member of friend who was trying to cross the border?’” she said. “‘Yeah, my brother. We haven’t heard from him in five days.' ‘What’s your brother’s name?’ That’s how we start. ‘Can you give me scars, marks, tattoos?’”

She weighs and tags the body or skeletal remains, examines from head to toe, logs the information, takes photos and cross references missing person databases.

“If we bring a border crosser in and say he has a star tattoo on his right arm, we can go to our computer and type in ‘star tattoo.’ It will pull up everybody that has been reported missing to us that has a star tattoo,” she said.

She then contacts the consul of the person’s native country, a vast majority she says coming from Mexico.

“It is very dangerous to cross the border," Gonzalez said. "We are aware of their situation or their wishes to provide for their families and find the ‘American dream,' but it is very dangerous. People should be aware of the dangers of crossing the desert.”

Although KGNS tried to locate a family affected by this situation, we were unable to as of this time.

However, Dr. Stern sees this seven days a week. She still remembers her first year in Webb County when a two year old drowned in the Rio Grande River.

“They put the little girl on the coyote’s shoulders, and the five year old, they couldn’t get her in the water, thank goodness. The coyote didn’t know how to swim, and he and the two year old drowned. I’ll always remember that case. Any time a child drowns in that river is just heartbreaking to me. It’s not the first time it’s happened, and it won’t be the last time.”

As for limiting exposure to COVID-19, Dr. Stern says she treats every border crosser that comes into her office as if they have the virus.

Autopsies are limited, and anyone suspected of previously having COVID-19 is stored in a COVID-only cooler.

Her office is much busier than normal, but she says they are not overwhelmed.

The number of border crossers at the end of September and in early October is what she typically sees in July, the summer months being busier than the rest of the year.

But with border restrictions due to the pandemic, the number of border crossers decreased. As the restrictions become more lax, she expects the numbers to climb.

According to data provided by the Mexican consulate, 32 Mexican nationals have died between January and September. All but two were men.

The most common cause of death is heat stroke, according to Dr. Stern.

As of mid-October, less than five border crossers have tested positive for COVID-19.

“Our main concern is to get them identified. Yes, I want to get an accurate diagnosis, but more importantly I want to get them identified so I can get them home to their family members," Dr. Stern said.

The Mexican consulate says a solution for legal immigration would be to provide more visas.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services sent a statement to KGNS saying that while they have experienced a slow down, they processed more than 110,000 naturalization ceremonies that were previously put on hold when they reopened to the public on June 4.

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