Bipartisan bill aims to identify missing migrants’ remains

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen

Texas lawmakers have introduced legislation that seeks to help border counties better identify the remains of missing migrants and alleviate the associated costs.

U.S. Reps. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, and Will Hurd, R-Helotes, as well as U.S. Sen. John Cornyn introduced the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act of 2018 Thursday in the House and Senate.

The bill seeks to amend existing federal laws to expand grant funds for local law enforcement agencies, forensic laboratories, medical examiners offices and nonprofit organizations that work to find, report and identify migrants that die or go missing in the U.S.

The cost of transporting, preserving and autopsying a migrant’s remains ranges from $1,500 to $4,000, according to Gonzalez’s office.

This year alone, the Missing Migrants Project, an initiative of the International Organization for Migration, has recorded 368 deaths along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

“I believe that the job of finding, identifying and keeping a database of migrants that come into our country undocumented and unidentified should be the federal government’s responsibility,” Gonzalez told The Monitor. “And at this time we have a lot of counties and municipalities that are picking up the tab on doing this work and they don’t have the resources and the training …”

One of these counties is Brooks, whose sheriff’s office has discovered the remains of 47 migrants this year. Since 2009, the county has recovered 681 deceased migrants.

Brooks County Sheriff Benny Martinez knows what it’s like not to have funds to cover the costs of storing and identifying migrant remains. State funding for these tasks didn’t become available until 2013, and he said the county spent approximately $682,000 of its own money to conduct autopsies on migrants and collect fingerprints and other DNA evidence between 2009 and 2012.

“It has really alleviated a lot of the strains we felt,” Martinez said of the availability of state funds.

The act  would also require U.S. Customs and Border Protection to submit annual reports of all unidentified remains discovered, including the cause and manner of death; the deceased migrant’s sex, age and country of origin; and the location where the body was found.

Additionally, the bill ensures that DNA samples in which family members of missing migrants submit to the FBI’s national DNA database “may be used only for identifying missing persons and unidentified remains … (and) may not be disclosed to a federal or state law enforcement agency for law enforcement purpose.”

Gonzalez is hopeful the bill will have support from both sides of the aisle, but recognizes it treats a symptom of migration rather than addressing the root causes.

“People like to say there’s a crisis on the border, but I always correct them and say, ‘No, we don’t have a crisis on the border, we have a crisis in three Central American countries, which is El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala … and that is a result of failed American policy.’”

He said he supports U.S. aid for security initiatives and business investments “to incentivize citizens to stay in their own country.”