This large scale migrant identification project requires the cooperation of many entities at every level of the forensic investigation, including the exhumations. Not only are many groups coming together to work within the cemetery, but the completion of each unit and sub-section is a group effort. While the Beyond Borders blog focuses mainly on the efforts of the UIndy team, we want to make sure that we highlight some of the other individuals that are instrumental in these identification efforts. Please see Operation Identification to learn more about the work being completed by Texas State University. Please see Remote Wildlands Search and Recovery to learn more about the work being done by Deputy White. Please see the South Texas Human Rights Center to learn more about initiatives to save lives along the border.
Today was very different than the last four days we have experienced. We were able to take a day and rest our bodies, so we could be fully recharged to continue searching for the unidentified at Sacred Heart Cemetery tomorrow. However, the true purpose of this day was to take some time to immerse ourselves in the other side of the humanitarian crisis occurring at the US-Mexico border. The side that we are used to includes the sadness of previously voiceless decedents who died in search of a better life, but our experiences today extended beyond that. We found that the side in which you interact with the people living with the consequences of US immigration policy are equally heartbreaking in so many ways. Last night, the UIndy team purchased a few bags full of useful food items and supplies that we wanted to donate to the Humanitarian Respite Center operated by the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. Today we were fortunate to be able to bring our donations to the center and receive a brief tour of their facility.
I have never woken up wondering if I would be pulled away from my family and held in a detention center. I have never feared that my family would be deported, that I would lose the progress of my education, that I would never see my home again, or my family, or my friends at school. Today I saw some of the sweetest and happiest children in the middle of some of the most difficult moments of their lives. I saw exhausted parents who had been desperately holding their family together after days in an ICE detention center, hoping to be granted asylum in this country. There were women and children who just wanted a meal and some guidance before heading on their way. They were helpful and grateful for the assistance, not greedy. They were lost in an unfamiliar place. They were non-English speakers. They were in need of bus tickets back to their family members. I tried not to think about it too much in fear that I would start crying. It was deeply heartwarming to see that so many people in the community volunteer their time and resources to help keep this operation running to serve vast numbers of people on a daily basis.
After leaving the Respite Center, we headed over to the border wall. This was my second time seeing it and it still gave me chills. The Rio Grande River marks the official border between countries, but there are tall walls with barbed wire or massive, rusty metal fences on the US side of the land by the river.
Within 90 seconds of walking over to the wall, a Border Patrol truck rolled up on us to interrogate our purpose in the area. He left us alone after hearing that we were white folks from Indiana just interested in seeing the wall, but I know he kept watch from afar. There was a broken ladder, probably from the journey of one traveler as he/she shimmied up and over this 20-foot fence.
We imagined the fear and adrenaline coursing through someone’s blood as they committed to this risky journey knowing they too, may only have 90 seconds before Border Patrol discovered them. Yet, all we could do was gaze at the other side of the fence, never knowing what it would feel like to make a run for our lives that could determine our future or the well being of our families in a faraway home.
The end of our day was marked by the most wonderful dining experience. Peggy and Bill Clark invited the entire team of volunteers to their house for dinner at their beautiful ranch home. We were able to gain some insight into the other side of the Falfurrias community; the thoughts, experiences, and daily lives of those outside our immediate circle of human rights volunteers. We arrived early to help set up and were incredibly thankful to develop relationships with the two of them. Peggy’s grandfather founded the town of Falfurrias, so she shared some incredible stories and family photos with us. Overall, they were just honest, kind, fascinating people who welcomed us into their homes with open arms and wanted to get to know us. I hope to be able to see them again in the future and value the conversations I was able to share with them.
There is a quote from Sister Norma Pimentel, the director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. She says, “Helping another human being is never wrong. It is never a wrong thing to do.” That really resonates with me, and I hope that people of all backgrounds can see the good in humanitarian work being done. I know we all learned a lot today, and I look forward to everything else to come.
Today was marked by the kindness of others.
We went through the morning finishing our first section. We found no burials or evidence thereof, so we began to move all of the dirt we had removed back into the unit. Sheriff Benny Martinez paid us a visit and offered his assistance in backfilling. He moved and worked just as hard, if not harder, than the rest of us. Sheriff Martinez is one of the main reasons we are able to do our work at Sacred heart, and for him we are incredibly grateful.
In the middle of our backfill, we got a message over the walkie talkie that a local
family had brought all of us lunch; not just our five person team, but all of Texas State’s team as well. More than forty of us ate homemade carne asada, zucchini, rice, and tortillas. They brought us plates, utensils, sodas, and water. Before we ate, the matriarch of the family said a prayer for us. She thanked us, and asked God to protect us both while we were doing this work, and for the rest of our lives. While I am not a religious person, this sentiment from her meant more to me than any amount of food. The support of the community means so much to our team, and assures us that what we are doing is for the greater good.
After we finished our amazing lunch, Beyond Borders alum Ryan joined our team. He drove to Falfurrias to help us today and tomorrow, and will leave tomorrow to be back to work on Monday. Ryan got started right away, carrying buckets and hauling dirt. Day three and four are supposedly the hardest days, so we are beyond thankful that Ryan is able to join us for both of them!
After we finally finished backfilling our first section, Dr. Latham and Dr. Kate Spradley — who is leading this excavation — decided that we would move to a different section than originally planned. We packed up all of our stuff and headed to our new area. We are under a tree still, which provides us shade. However, it also means we are digging through roots, which is incredibly difficult.
I asked Deputy Don White if he had a rake in his truck to help with the surface debris, and before I knew it, he had gone and bought us two brand new rakes. Not only was this an amazing act of kindness, but they came in very handy in trying to deal with the roots. Deputy White has helped us every day with securing the site, fixing anything that is broken, and generally being our go-to guy.
Thanks to everyone’s help, we were able to finish out the day strong.
After a long, long, long day, we were able to show our thanks by taking Sheriff Martinez, Ryan, and Deputy White out to dinner at Taqueria Jalisco.
We are exhausted, but our hearts and stomachs are full.