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Mass Graves of Immigrants Found in Texas, But State Says No Laws Were Broken

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Texas says there is “no evidence” of wrongdoing after mass graves filled with bodies of immigrants were found miles inland from the U.S.-Mexico border. The bodies were gathered from the desert surrounding a checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas, in Brooks County. An investigation was launched after the mass graves were exposed last November in a documentary by The Weather Channel in partnership with Telemundo and The Investigative Fund. The report also found many of the migrants died after crossing into the United States and waiting hours for Border Patrol to respond to their 911 calls. We speak with reporter John Carlos Frey, who found rampant violations of the law.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Texas, where several cases of immigrant abuse have surfaced, both at the beginning of life and in death. The Texas Observer reports this week the state has been denying birth certificates to children born to undocumented parents. Despite the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of citizenship to everyone born in the United States, Texas officials have reportedly refused to provide birth certificates to children whose mothers lack U.S. visas. A group of mothers has filed a lawsuit against the practice.

Meanwhile, about 250 children held in a detention center for immigrants and asylum seekers were given an adult dose of a hepatitis A vaccine earlier this month. Crystal Williams of the American Immigration Lawyers Association told HuffPost Live what happened.

CRYSTAL WILLIAMS: They were given a double dose, just there, of the hepatitis A vaccine. Many of them very likely already had a hepatitis A vaccine just a couple of days before. The whole thing was inexplicable, but at the same time very emblematic of what has been going on there. Incidentally, several of the children did develop problems from the vaccinations. Whether it was from the hep A or not, we don’t know, because there were four to six vaccination given to each child. But there are a couple of children whose legs swelled so much that they were unable to walk. There was a child with severe vomiting and diarrhea. And the solution to this, as it was to everything, or is to almost everything in the facility, is drink more water. That’s the answer to everything: Drink more water.

AMY GOODMAN: And in the latest scandal, Texas has claimed there was no evidence of wrongdoing when the bodies of immigrants found miles inland from the Mexican border were placed in mass graves. The bodies were gathered from the desert surrounding a checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas, in Brooks County. An investigation was launched after the mass graves were exposed last November in a documentary by The Weather Channel in partnership with Telemundo and The Investigative Fund. In this clip, reporter John Carlos Frey speaks with Dr. Krista Latham of the University of Indianapolis at one of the sites where scores of migrant bodies were buried.

LORI BAKER: They’re unmarked, they’re unidentifiable, and there’s no information on these individuals. We anticipate at least several hundred may still be buried within the cemetery.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: As I investigate why so many lost migrants are dying in Brooks County, I hear about forensic teams from Baylor and Indianapolis universities, who have spent the past two years exhuming migrant bodies.

KRISTA LATHAM: I just feel like everybody deserves to be mourned properly. They still have parents or siblings or spouses or children that are wondering what happened to them. So we’re doing this for the families.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: For years, the previous sheriff would give the bodies to a funeral home, that charged taxpayers over a thousand dollars per body, then buried them, anonymously, in a corner of this cemetery.

Can you describe what kinds of bags the individuals were buried in?

LORI BAKER: They’re biohazard bags, trash bags. One was—

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Just regular trash bags?

LORI BAKER: Trash bags. What we found last year, there were coffins that were right next to each other on all four sides, because there were so many people buried in that area. We took one of them down, and we found skulls in between the burials. And so, we just can’t leave any dirt unturned, or we might miss somebody.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Wait, you have coffin, coffin, coffin, and then, in between coffins, you have skulls.

LORI BAKER: Skull, sometimes.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: These are mass graves.

LORI BAKER: These are mass graves. They’re commingled. Every one is different.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: So you shouldn’t just dump a bag into a hole in the ground.

LORI BAKER: You know, would you want your son buried that way? Or your mom? Or your sister? Or your brother? I mean, this isn’t how you want someone you love to be buried.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by the reporter you just heard in this clip, his own investigation, revealing new evidence that indicates rampant violations of the law with these mass graves. John Carlos Frey is the documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist at The Nation Institute. His latest report “Graves of Shame,” follows up on his last-year report, “The Real Death Valley.”

John, welcome back to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Explain to us where these mass graves came from. Who is buried in them?

JOHN CARLOS FREY: The mass graves are in a small rural county in South Texas called Brooks County, a very poor county. The migrants mostly come from Central America and Mexico, and they find themselves crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, trying to evade a checkpoint and walking about 40 miles in what amounts to 100-degree heat and 100 percent humidity. Many of the individuals die. They don’t have identification on them. The process by which the county and officials in the area try to identify them is pretty meaningless. And these individuals are buried in a county cemetery, basically dumped into a hole in the ground. Many of them don’t have markers or proper burial techniques. And these graves, in the last couple of years, have been exhumed so that the individuals can be identified, or at least the attempt to identify them.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, John, who do you believe should be held accountable for this?

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Well, the county is responsible. Anybody who is found deceased in the county, there is a procedure by which individuals who handle the remains have to try the best that they possibly can to try and identify the individuals. For example, county coroners are supposed to take DNA evidence and submit that to our missing persons and unidentified database. Individuals are supposed to have any sort of identification in the actual container where the individual is buried. The cemetery is supposed to have a plot plan. If you’re looking for the remains of a particular individual, you’re supposed to be able to find exactly where they’ve been buried. And it goes on down the list, from law enforcement to county officials to private mortuary companies. Any individual who has contact with the remains are culpable here. And all of those people that I just named and the organizations I just named have been negligent.

AMY GOODMAN: John Carlos Frey, you report hundreds of migrants have died in the sweltering Texas brush, some while waiting hours for Border Patrol to respond to their 911 calls. Your documentary features Sigfredo Palomo. He and his brother, José Fernando Palomo, came to the U.S. hoping to escape violence in El Salvador. But after they crossed the border, Fernando fell ill, and the two were abandoned by their guide. In this clip, Sigfredo describes how he had called 911 repeatedly as his brother Fernando lay dying.

SIGFREDO PALOMO: [translated] And then he started to hallucinate. His body, or his limbs, were no longer functioning. He didn’t recognize me, and that just killed me.

I called into 911 last night, so that you could report me to Border Patrol.

911 DISPATCHER: [translated] And they haven’t found you?

SIGFREDO PALOMO: [translated] No. And my little brother just died on me.

911 DISPATCHER: [translated] I’m so sorry. One moment please. And it’s just you and your brother, right?

SIGFREDO PALOMO: [translated] Yes, but he just died on me.

911 DISPATCHER: [translated] What is your brother’s name?

SIGFREDO PALOMO: [translated] José Fernando Hernández Palomo. He was 22 years old.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: This is Sigfredo moments after he’s rescued. It’s been 11 hours since he first called 911 and over three hours since dispatch got accurate coordinates. The Border Patrol never shows. It’s local police who come—in order to retrieve his brother’s body.

SIGFREDO PALOMO: [translated] They were the ones who literally told me, “Your brother will go to a funeral home in Laredo, Texas. And you will be deported.” Those were their exact words.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s an excerpt from The Real Death Valley by our guest, John Carlos Frey, the documentary filmmaker, investigative journalist. Tell us—continue to take us on this road. And talk about DNA evidence, what the state authorities are doing, what you feel needs to be done, as the controversy today is all about Donald Trump calling Mexicans “rapists,” John Carlos.

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Yeah, the individuals that I have found, especially in this particular area, are not rapists. Most of the people coming to this region here are asylum seekers. They’re fleeing horrible violence and economic depression in their own countries, mostly from Central America. And they’re coming to the United States to present themselves—to seek asylum, which is perfectly legal in the United States. It’s the way that we manage asylum seekers. We ask them to come to the U.S.-Mexico border and to make a claim of asylum. And that’s exactly what happened in this particular case.

Some people find themselves lost in this vast ranchland area, and the elements are just inhospitable, and many individuals die. And even in death, the individuals, their remains are improperly prepared and buried. As you just mentioned the case of DNA, all unidentified individuals in the state of Texas, by law, are supposed to have a DNA biopsy. Even if we don’t know who these individuals are, maybe sometime in the future they will be able to be cross-referenced with family DNA samples. On down the list, the way that the bodies were prepared, the way the bodies were buried, and now that they’ve been exhumed, we have found out that the bodies were improperly taken care of.

The Texas Rangers, who are the preeminent and elite group in the state of Texas who do investigations, were tasked with investigating why there were mass graves in Brooks County. They found no criminal wrongdoing. It’s exactly why I picked up the investigation myself. I found over a dozen violations of Texas and national law with respect to the way that the remains were buried. The culpability here is all the way from county supervisors all the way up to government officials, even Rick Perry, who was actually the governor at the time, who actually is pretty close friends with the private mortuary—I’m sorry, the private funeral company who was responsible for burying the bodies. The largest funeral services company in the country, Service Corporation International, was actually responsible for burying the bodies. And we found individuals buried four inches below the surface in shallow graves. We found people who were buried without containers. We found individuals who were buried without any identification information whatsoever, people buried in trash bags, in biohazard bags. We even uncovered an individual who was buried in a milk crate. So, these are all violations of law that I just listed, and the Texas Rangers themselves—excuse me—found no criminal wrongdoing whatsoever in this case.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, John Carlos Frey, you spoke to some of the people crossing the border in that area. Could you explain what they told you about the conditions they were fleeing and the risks they were willing to take, despite how dangerous it is attempting to cross into the United States along that border in Texas?

JOHN CARLOS FREY: Yes, exactly. I mean, and to the point of Donald Trump, these are not people coming from Central America or Mexico to rape American women. It’s the most ridiculous statement that I’ve ever heard. These are individuals who are fleeing extraordinary violence. If you know anything about Central America, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras—is suffering from great gang violence, cartel violence. People are not safe. Children cannot play out in the streets past 5:00. People lock themselves in their homes, and their windows are barred. Many individuals hire even private security to protect themselves. People are extorted on a regular basis in their jobs and in their businesses. And so, in order to make a living, in order to live safely, there’s no recourse. People are threatened with their lives on a regular basis. And many of the individuals I have spoken to who have fled those conditions come to the United States, obviously, seeking a better life. So, for a presidential candidate such as Donald Trump to denigrate—to denigrate the poor and the suffering, and to use them as a political platform for his own well-being is tantamount to cowardice. These are individuals who have no recourse. They wouldn’t leave their home countries, their cultures, their languages just to come to the United States to do harm. They’re really people who are suffering and in desperate need.

AMY GOODMAN: Sort of makes you think about what the pope would say, Pope Francis, who stood up for the poor and the suffering. John Carlos Frey, thanks so much for being with us, documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist at The Nation Institute. “Graves of Shame” is his latest piece.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Greece. Stay with us.

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