Basic respect for human dignity

On Aug. 1, two Monitor reporters found the lifeless body of a 41-year-old immigrant woman from Guatemala near Sullivan City in western Hidalgo County, almost a week after her family had reported her missing.

News reports have been using the pseudonym “Alma” to identify the woman since her family had not yet been notified.

The reporters found Alma’s body after about five hours of searching in the brush based on her relative’s report of her last whereabouts. They did not have an advanced GPS or radar, special training on search and rescue operations, or a particular duty to search for missing persons. Yet, they accomplished in five hours what the Sullivan City Police Department, the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, and the U.S. Border Patrol, combined, could not do in almost a week.

The Monitor reporters’ outstanding work is laudable, and stands in stark contrast to our authorities’ appalling inaction.

The inability or unwillingness of our law enforcement agencies — both local and federal — should concern us all.

It is undisputed that law enforcement agencies have limited resources and many priorities, but in the face of a report of a deceased person, with very specific details about her location, it is dismaying to discover that none of the agencies that were notified took enough steps to find and rescue her body.

Alma’s relative also notified the Guatemalan consulate in McAllen, but its jurisdiction does not extend to searching for missing immigrants — only to notifying local authorities, which had happened days earlier.

The Arizona-based Desert Angels, an NGO dedicated to rescuing immigrants lost in the desert, could not send someone to Texas in time to help.

That the reporters managed to find her body within hours, based on the same directions given to the authorities a week earlier, shows that local law enforcement authorities could also have done the same, had they put in the necessary time and attention.

Regardless of one’s views on whether Alma had the right to be in this country — we’ll never know if she might have had an asylum claim or other immigration relief — there is a point at which we must draw the line of respect for basic human dignity. The failure by these agencies to act promptly crossed that line.

When someone is reported as missing or dead, we all, as a society, should be justified in expecting that our law enforcement agencies will take steps to rescue or find that person, not point fingers or come up with justifications after the fact to explain their failure to do so. One day, it could be you or me reporting a missing family member.

More immigrants will undoubtedly attempt to cross the Rio Grande Valley, and sadly some of them will not make it. If that happens, and their families report them missing or dead, we have every right to expect and demand our authorities will, at the very least, respect their dignity by rescuing their bodies.

Efrén Olivares is the regional legal director for the Texas Civil Rights Project and is based in Alamo. He writes for The Monitor’s Board of Contributors.