On the banks of the Rio Grande, Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber pointed at the spot where just a day earlier a 3-year-old boy had drowned.
“Medical attention (was) provided,” Schmerber said. “He died anyway.”
The boy’s white t-shirt had a murky tinge in a post-mortem photo. Schmerber pointed down river and said “three or four” adult migrants recently drowned there. He pulled out his phone and showed CNN some of the most recent post-mortem and scene photos of migrant deaths in his county.
“I feel sad for the families,” said Schmerber.
The sight of migrant bodies floating onshore or turning up in the surrounding ranchlands has become an almost everyday occurrence recently, Schmerber says.
The number of migrants attempting the crossing has continued to rise, and the increase in arrivals is leading to more deaths, according to Schmerber.
Some of the deaths are also due to migrants taking more and more risks to evade detection by federal authorities, he says. People are crossing the tumultuous Rio Grande, walking through dangerous ranchlands in the record Texas heat and paying the ultimate price, the sheriff adds.
It’s something immigration rights advocates have warned about as the latest tragic trend: people being forced to take increasingly risky paths due to mix of border policies that have made it more difficult for migrants to seek refuge in the US.
So many migrants, including children, who have attempted to cross the US southern border have died in this region that the forensic pathologist serving the area says 2022 is on pace to become the deadliest year on record in recent memory.
“I’m seeing an extreme increase in the number of border crossing deaths compared to other years,” said Webb County Medical Examiner Dr. Corrine Stern. “This is my busiest year in my career ever.”
Stern has been practicing for 20 years and serves 11 counties in south Texas, including Maverick. So far this year, 218 migrants have died, she said – a number that has already surpassed the 196 deaths that occurred at the same time last year, when she served 12 counties.
Stern’s job includes not only determining cause and manner of death but also identifying the migrants and notifying next of kin – which can be a slow process, especially because migrants from nationalities she had not seen before are dying in her region. Some of the countries of origin include Peru, Nicaragua, Haiti, Venezuela and Columbia. Due to the frosty relationships between the US and some of those nations, it’s difficult and sometimes impossible to get identifying information, she explained.
The increase in deaths and the delay in identifying the deceased has created a problem Stern says she had never faced before: With 260 migrant bodies in her custody in five coolers, she has run out of space.
She says she informed officials in the counties she serves that they needed to store the bodies of the new migrant deaths in their funeral homes until her office has available space.
“We just don’t have the storage capability right now because of the sheer number that we’re seeing,” Stern said.
At least one funeral home in her jurisdiction, Memorial Funeral Chapels in Eagle Pass, told CNN it is at capacity too.
As a result, the funeral home has started burying unidentified migrants at the Maverick County Cemetery.
In the back of the cemetery, past the personalized tombstones surrounded by flowers, are 16 fresh graves marked with partial crosses made of scraps of PVC pipes.
Each grave is also marked with a small sign indicating that the people laid to rest are Jane and John Does. One states it is for a “Baby John” Doe who lost his life.
It’s the rising number of child migrant deaths that haunt Stern. She says that so far this year she has identified six minor deaths, ages 1, 7, 13 and three 17-year-olds.
The youngest migrant victims, she says, involve children in the womb. Most recently, a Haitian pregnant woman died in Maverick County. She was expecting twins.
“That’s not just a mom drowning. That’s mom and her two kids drowning,” Stern said.
Earlier this week, Stern asked one of her assistants to take one of the recently arrived deceased migrants into the autopsy suite for an initial examination. As the black body bag was unzipped, and a backpack and jeans were removed from inside, Dr. Stern read from the case notes.
This was a 22-year-old Mexican construction worker who crossed into Texas with his brother last week. They had been walking for three days without any food, she said.
Stern pointed to scratches on his arms that were most likely from walking through the brush, she said. There were white medical patches still on his body – clues he had received medical attention.
“There are a lot of paramedics embedded with Border Patrol. They tried to save his life, they were just not able to,” Stern said.
Since October, federal agents on the US southern border have conducted 18,897 migrant search and rescues, surpassing the previous year’s 12,833 life-saving attempts, according to US Customs and Border Protection statistics.
In the past year, migrants CNN has interviewed along the US Mexico border have pointed to violence, climate change and economic downturns in their home countries as the factors driving their dangerous journeys to America.
A 20-year-old Nicaraguan national who crossed into Maverick County this week and was waiting for Border Patrol agents to pick him up when CNN talked to him, also pointed to equal rights for the LGBTQ community as a reason migrants want to come here.
“From what I’ve seen, there’s a lot of support for the (gay) community and there’s not much discrimination, (compared) to other countries that I’ve traversed,” Bryan Moraga told CNN in Spanish.
This could go on forever, sheriff says
As he drives along a dirt road that runs parallel to the Rio Grande, Sheriff Schmerber says he sees migrants, many with children, cross into his county every day.
He points to the new barbed wire fence that now hugs the banks and says Governor Greg Abbott installed the barrier earlier this year, but it hasn’t deterred migrant crossings. He slows down his speed when he sees that multiple pieces of clothing are draped over the coils of sharp metal.
“Look over there, they are using their clothes to protect them(selves) and make it easier to cross,” Sheriff Schmerber said.
During the current fiscal year, federal agents have encountered a record-breaking nearly 2 million migrants, federal data shows. By definition, a migrant “encounter” is when migrants are detained, screened, vetted and returned to Mexico under Title 42, are removed from US soil or placed under Title 8 removal proceedings by federal immigration authorities.
From fiscal years 2006 to 2021, the highest number of migrant “encounters” occurred in 2021, when 1.7 million migrants tried coming into the US illegally through the southern border, according to a federal law enforcement source.
US Customs and Border Protection declined an interview for this story. The Biden administration has defended its multi-layered border security strategy and has pointed to the launching of an unprecedented operation to disrupt human smuggling networks amid an ongoing rise of border crossings in recent months.
After 53 migrants died in a blistering tractor trailer in San Antonio this summer, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said he was “heartbroken” and called human smugglers “callous individuals” who need to be held accountable for the deaths of migrants.
Last week, at least four migrants turned up dead in Maverick County, according to Schmerber.
On Monday, US Border Patrol agents had discovered an unresponsive infant floating in the water, according to an agency spokesperson. That infant was eventually transferred to a local hospital. When agents later returned to the area, they found the drowned toddler.
On Tuesday, his deputies got a call at about 10 a.m. from Border Patrol about a man floating on the river.
“I see the bodies and it’s something that I feel bad (about) because (these are) people that are coming here thinking of a better future,” Sheriff Schmerber said.
Schmerber says he doesn’t agree with all of Texas Governor Gregg Abbott’s border initiatives but gives him kudos for pumping millions of dollars and sending hundreds of personnel to bolster border security in his county.
But as a retired Border Patrol agent who is now a sheriff, Schmerber says he knows immigration is in the federal government’s purview and hopes President Joe Biden visits the border to witness the realities on the ground.
If nothing is done to curb the immigration issue, the current deadly reality, Schmerber says, will “go on forever.”