MISSION — As the sun rose over La Lomita Chapel here early Friday morning, Rev. Roy Snipes gently pulled down on a wooden staff to sound a bell, marking the deaths of immigrants found on the riverbanks of the Rio Grande with each toll.
Snipes, who has presided over Our Lady of Guadalupe Church for nearly three decades, said he had never rung the bell at La Lomita before Friday’s funeral Mass for the immigrants who’ve recently died coming to America.
Just outside the 150-year-old chapel and shrine, six wreaths stood, each one wrapped in a sash prominently displaying the names of the six souls lost over last weekend.
“We do this in memory of Jesus Christ… ” Snipes said as he led a small group of parishioners in prayer during the sunrise service. “…and loved ones who’ve been taken from us by the angel of death, especially those who died here on the river just within the last week.
Among those recited were 25-year-old Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his 23-month-old daughter Valeria, the Salvadoran immigrants found dead near the riverbanks between Matamoros, Mexico and Brownsville, the image of which has captured the nation’s attention and prompted outrage.
The woman and three kids found dead Sunday near the U.S.-Mexico border on the Gabrielson Land Tract, near Mission, were also included in the prayer. Sources familiar with the case have said they likely died of dehydration and heat exposure.
FBI officials, who are leading the investigation because the area in which the bodies were found is federal land, said there were no new updates in the case as of Friday.
“… And all those who have died, we commend them humbly to your love, as we remember them,” Snipes prayed.
Affectionately referred to locally as the cowboy priest, Snipes said he and Bishop Daniel E. Flores, of the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, blessed the bodies of the three kids found near Mission during what he described as a private and emotional ceremony, which was held only a few days prior to Friday’s mass.
“…He dropped everything to bless the bodies of those little lost ones,” Snipes said of the bishop. “The good shepherd went out after the lost sheep, a good shepherd drops everything and goes out to the lost sheep. I was so honored and proud that he could come.”
The news of the recent deaths has led to more condemnation of the Trump administration, who immigration advocates say are in part responsible.
They argue the deaths are a result of the administration’s use of “metering” at legal ports of entry, leading to frustrated asylum-seekers and immigrants foregoing a legal route and attempting to cross the treacherous Rio Grande on their own — like Martinez Ramirez did.
Candy Martinez, a Mission resident and longtime parishioner, attended the mass and said as a mother, she has compassion for these immigrants and other immigrant mothers who make the journey to the U.S.
“We don’t know their state of mind. How desperate can they be that they went to this extent — we don’t know. Other than they’re looking for something just a little bit better,” the 49-year-old Martinez said. “All we know is they were trying to provide… get their children to a better place.”
Since 1998, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection began tracking deaths at the southwest U.S.-Mexico border, more than 7,000 immigrants have died attempting to cross into the country, CBP’s website states.
In fiscal year 2018, CBP reported 283 immigrants died crossing in this southwest region; of those, nearly 100 died in the Rio Grande Valley sector.
Making matters potentially worse for asylum seekers, is the news that the administration will add at least two additional Mexican cities bordering Arizona — Nuevo Laredo and San Luis Rio Colorado in the northern states of Tamaulipas and Sonora, respectively — to the Migrant Protection Protocols or Remain in Mexico policy.
The policy, a DHS-led initiative, seeks to return immigrants and asylum-seekers to Mexico while they await for their respective U.S. immigration proceedings.
Tamaulipas is on the U.S Department of State’s list of Mexican cities in which U.S. citizens are told to “exercise increased caution” while visiting, listing it as a “Level 2” advisory due to “crime and kidnapping,” according to the website.
Tamaulipas is also known as the home of the Gulf and Zeta cartels, which routinely engage in kidnapping and other violent acts.
Back on the banks of the river, and after the nearly hour-long mass, Snipes and several of those in attendance drove less than a mile to the Riverside Club for the final moments of Friday morning’s somber ceremony.
There, at Riverside’s water-front patio, Snipes sprinkled holy water on the wreaths and led a prayer before they were placed in the Rio Grande, one by one.
“…It’s pretty much always emotional, but sometimes it’s more emotional when it’s a child and it’s a tragedy,” Snipes said regarding the news of the recent deaths. “…They were running from horrible experiences and they were hoping to find not just relief. They were hoping to find a place where their hearts could be at home. It’s an awful tragedy.”