'Missing in Brooks County': A new documentary exposes how border policies have contributed to the deaths of thousands of migrants right here in the United States

·5 min read
Eddie Canales stocks remote water stations
Immigrant rights activist Eddie Canales stocks remote water stations along migrant trails on March 17, 2017 near Falfurrias, Brooks County, Texas.Photo by John Moore/Getty Images
  • "Missing in Brooks County" details migrants' dangerous journey through south Texas.

  • Since 1994, at least 8,000 migrants have died while passing through Brooks County.

  • The documentary premieres January 31 on PBS. It will also be available for streaming.

The call came in on Christmas, one of around 50 that Eddie Canales gets every week. On the other end was a man with GPS coordinates that would point rescuers to his nephew, a migrant from Central America stranded in a remote area of southern Texas.

Canales, a former labor activist now in his 70s, was with some friends cooking menudo, a Mexican soup made from tripe that is especially popular during the holidays. But when he got off the line he reached out to Border Patrol.

"And we saved this guy," Canales said in an interview with Insider. "He had a hurt leg and couldn't go on anymore."

The man was lucky.

Over the past 25 years, thousands of migrants have died — not just on their way to the United States, but within it. Since 1994, at least 8,000 have perished in Brooks County alone. The actual death toll is almost certainly higher than the official count, with the number of missing people far exceeding the human remains that have been discovered to date.

Canales established the South Texas Human Rights Center there to both raise awareness of the danger and help those who find themselves in it.

"This is definitely a mass disaster," Lisa Molomot, who teaches filmmaking at the University of Arizona, told Insider. "I think that if people really understood how bad it was, they would be alarmed and really unhappy with what their government is doing. But it's just so quiet. And no one knows."

The documentary, "Missing in Brooks County," which airs January 31 on PBS's "Independent Lens," is trying to bridge that knowledge gap.

In 2015, Molomot and co-director Jeff Bemiss began traveling to Brooks Country after hearing about the work of Dr. Kate Spradley, a biological anthropologist at Texas State University who has spent years trying to find and identify the remains of migrants who have gone missing.

Brooks County is not along the US-Mexico border but, as the film explains, migrants die there for a reason.

In 1994, under former President Bill Clinton, the US launched "Operation Hold the Line," aimed at preventing migration at the most popular crossing points and establishing internal checkpoints to deter those who still make it across. The checkpoint in Falfurrias, Brooks County, is 70 miles north of the Rio Grande River and staffed 24 hours a day.

Undocumented people know that the checkpoint is there. Some attempt to go through it in the back of trucks. But many, who have invested thousands of dollars to make it that far, choose to go around it, undeterred by the prospect of walking through 40 miles of desert and secluded, private ranches.

Photo of a woman
A shrine dedicated to Rosario Yanira Girón de Orellana, 41, of El Salvador, at the home of Rosarios sister Maria Huezo, on Sunday, June 27, 2021 in Cleveland, Texas. U.S. Border Patrol, Rio Grande Valley Sector, discovered the remains of a deceased undocumented female, Rosario Yanira Girón de Orellana, 41, of El Salvador, on a ranch in Brooks County on Friday, June 4, 2021 in Falfurrias, Texas.Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

"People don't understand that the militarization that happened, starting with 'prevention by deterrence,' and then really amplified after 9/11 — it basically created the smuggling industry," Bemiss told Insider.

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It also created the need for the services of people like Canales, who has dedicated his retirement years to helping people find their missing relatives.

Sometimes a miracle happens. Other times, a statistic.

"We don't call them people anymore, we call them bodies," one Border Patrol agent says in the documentary as he drives to the site of one migrant's remains. "You start calling them people, then it starts getting to you."

It clearly still bothers him. But for others in the documentary, immigrants are a matter of politics, the actual people behind it reduced to "killers" and "rapists" by some of the most powerful politicians in America.

Those who believe such rhetoric see migrants not as human beings but as potential terrorists. In the documentary, one of the elderly members of a vigilante militia, the Texas Border Volunteers, tells the filmmakers that migration is part of a broader conspiracy to topple the United States.

"I know this, if you've never thought of these things before, this sounds way far out," he says. "But I'm not all convinced that there are not enemy countries in the world that are going to attempt to overtake us, internally."

Officers lifting a body bag.
Alonzo Rangel, left, funeral director of Funeraria (cq) Del Angel, and Brooks County Deputy Raul Narvaez, 31, after an inspection, remove the remains of deceased female migrant, Rosario Yanira Girón de Orellana, 40, of El Salvador, found on a ranch in Brooks County on Friday, June 4, 2021 in Falfurrias, Texas.Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The reality, the documentary shows, is more banal.

Some migrants are like Homero Roman, who grew up in the United States only to be deported at the age of 27. He couldn't adapt to life in Mexico, so he crossed the border and walked through Brooks County. The film details his family's struggle to find his remains. They never do.

Many more are just looking to improve their lives, the documentary explains, fleeing economies and political systems in turmoil. "People don't just come here to hang out, you know," Canales said. "People come here to work."

Billions of dollars in spending on border security have certainly made the journey north more difficult. But, as the documentary shows, it hasn't changed the calculus for many migrants who would, nevertheless, prefer a legal means of working in the US.

"It's a tragedy that I see every day: people getting lost and being out there in the brush and the chaparral and the woods that are unknown to them — and dying," Canales said. "There's no need for that."

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

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