LAREDO, Texas — One Texas border county medical examiner’s office faces the overwhelming task of storing, autopsying, and identifying the remains of migrants who die while or after crossing into the U.S. The office serves a 12-county area and processes more than half of all migrant deaths in Texas.
Webb County Medical Examiner Dr. Corinne Stern told Breitbart News on New Year’s Day that her office processed the remains of a record 171 deceased migrants. She said this is the highest number she has ever witnessed on the job. The number of deaths along the entire Texas-Mexico border during 2019 exceeded 220.
During an interview late last year with Breitbart News Tonight, Dr. Stern said her facilities are packed beyond capacity.
“A large part of my responsibility is to recover and identify border crossers — those migrants who die in their attempts to cross the border between Mexico and the United States,” Dr. Stern told Breitbart’s Alex Marlow and Brandon Darby. “We are in dire need of space. We have two portable morgue units that are on loan to us from the Laredo City Health Department — they are full. We also have a large one from the State.”
“We have [the migrants] tripled on each table,” she explained. Dr. Stern said they were forced to remove the gurneys from her two large coolers. “We didn’t have enough space so we put them on the floor.”
Dr. Stern said she witnessed more migrant deaths during 2019 than any other year she has served as medical examiner. As of the date of the interview, Stern processed the remains of more than 155 decedents.
Dr. Stern’s office serves multiple counties along the Texas border, many of which do not have the funds or capacity to process the deaths locally. The counties include Brooks, Dimmit, Duval, Jim Hogg, Kenedy, Kleberg, La Salle, Maverick, Starr, Val Verde, Zapata, and her own, Webb.
Dr. Stern discussed the high number of migrant deaths in Brooks County. She explained the county is unique because it is not a border community. It is set 80 miles north of the international boundary. At least 46 migrants died in Brooks County during 2019, Breitbart Texas reported.
“So why do so man migrants die in Brooks County?” she asked. “What’s happening is, when those migrants cross the river, those migrants that end up in Brooks County cross the river in McAllen, Texas. They are picked up by guides [cartel-connected human smugglers].”
Stern explained that migrants are frequently held for long periods of time in a safe house. “We talked to some family members who said that their loved ones were held in a safe house for up to three months. And, when I say a ‘safe house,’ I mean it’s like a warehouse.”
She said they are held until they are picked up by another guide who drives them to Brooks County.
“They’re left on one of those large ranches,” she explained. “They’re given points of reference so they can walk around the checkpoint. Once they’re around the checkpoint, they’ll be picked up and that’s why they’re dying in that vast ranch land.”
“Brooks County is very different than Webb County,” the medical examiner continued. “We are a border county. We sit on the banks of the Rio Grande River.”
She said that in her county they get the ranch land deaths, but also have to deal with drownings.
“We actually have to go into the river,” she said.
Dr. Stern said Maverick County experienced an unprecedented number of drownings this year.
“They’re getting an inordinate amount of drownings because of the caravan of Hondurans,” Stern stated. “They came up through Piedras Negras. They’re all sitting there on the border. Some of them have applied for asylum and they’re given a court date.”
She said they get impatient and get tired of waiting so they try to cross the river. “They’ll jump in the river and try and come across themselves.”
“Recently, within the past few months, I had a mother and her one-year-old son — they came up to the border in Val Verde County,” Dr. Stern recalled. “They applied for asylum. They were given a court date. They went back to wait [in Mexico]. Mom didn’t want to wait. [She] paid a coyote to bring them across and they both drowned. They ended up on my autopsy table.”
The Webb County Medical Examiner’s Office stores the remains of Dr. Stern’s patients as a courtesy until the identification process is complete and the remains can be properly processed. While the office has a very high success rate of patient identification — including those of skeletal remains — many must remain in storage for an extended period.
Stern explained the painstaking process her staff goes through to attempt to identify the remains of the decedents. They receive a complete autopsy and all forensic tests are utilized to make the identification process successful.
“If we look at intact remains, our identification rate is 85 percent,” Stren stated. “If you put skeletal remains with that it drops down to about 70 to 75 percent.”
During the interview, Stern discussed the impact on her and her staff in dealing with this massive number of deaths.
“My staff, we are a very close-knit family,” Stern said about dealing with the stress of her job. “What we see or what we deal with on a daily basis are unlike that of any other physician’s office. It is very unique. We deal with it together.”