RIO GRANDE VALLEY, Texas – UPDATE: The mummified remains Border Patrol recovered days before the recording of this story have been identified as a man from Mexico. His family was notified within days of his remains being found near Mission, Texas.
What began in Tucson, Arizona over a year ago, and to some extent Falfurrias in South Texas, is now in the Rio Grande Valley. The Missing Migrant Initiative (MMI) is a concerted humanitarian effort to rescue, recover or identify the bodies of undocumented immigrants.
U.S. Border Patrol will be the main point of contact for families, consulates, law enforcement and human rights advocates.
“We are providing a centralized call center for those people to call in,” said Hugo Vega, the operations officer who helps oversee MMI. “We come into the picture, vetting those phone calls and try to respond as soon as possible.”
Rather than calling their families to say goodbye, Vega said immigrants in distress who have their cellphones should call 911. He said it would help pinpoint their location to aid in their rescue.
In announcing the initiative’s first success in identifying remains, Chief Patrol Agent Manuel Padilla Jr. said, “This program will support the reduction of migrant deaths through a humane, proactive and efficient response.”
Vega said last October, MMI evidence technicians were able to accomplish what other agencies previously attempted. He said they identified the remains of a migrant who died in 2015 by photographing the ridge details of his fingerprints, later solving what had been a cold case.
In September, MMI assisted in a rescue. A Salvadoran national who was lost in the brush contacted family using WhatsApp. The family reached human rights advocates, who then called MMI. Border Patrol agents at the Falfurrias station were able to find and rescue the man.
Vega said Padilla, the former sector chief in Tucson, brought the initiative with him when he was reassigned to the Rio Grande Valley sector. Both areas have seen hundreds of migrants die while crossing harsh and unforgiving terrain.
In Brooks County, north of Edinburg, more than 50 bodies have been recovered in 2016 so far.
Eddie Canales, director of the South Texas Human Rights Center, said human rights advocates and Border Patrol in Falfurrias had already begun a process similar to MMI by classifying cases for rescue or recovery.
"We are going to continue to work with them and see how we can best serve families who are looking for their loved ones," Canales said.
“It’s an awesome initiative. It’s going to help all of us,” said Benny Martinez, the chief deputy in Brooks County. The sheriff’s office usually gets the 911 calls from immigrants lost on its sprawling ranches, and its deputies are the first to respond.
Martinez said MMI should help streamline the process in hopes of finally informing families who’ve been waiting for any word.