Administrative Purgatory: Repatriation of the Dead Along the Mexican Border

by Dan Boyer

Burial rights—the family’s claims to the dead bodies of its loved ones—predate the common law. Hector’s body, in the Homeric epic, affords an early, stark example of this important tradition in western culture. Achilles, having vanquished the Trojan prince, parades Hector’s corpse along the outskirts of Troy for twelve days before Achilles’s mother Thetis, a deity, persuades him to return the body to Priam and the mourning city. Book XXIV of the Iliad thus underscores a tradition transcending positive Hellenic law. As scholar Brian Satterfield notes, the Homeric text places “the law of burial at the heart of the city”—it is “a mark of ‘civilization’ and humanity.”

In the U.S. we still hold our death rites sacrosanct. Consider not only the legislation, but also the passionate controversy, stirred by protesting Westboro Baptist church members at the funerals of dead soldiers. Similarly, in Mexico, “[t]he desire to be buried back home in Mexico is ingrained in the national psyche.”[1] Mexican folk tradition has immortalized this sentiment in a popular ballad, “Lindo y Querido,” in which singer Jorge Negrete pleads, “If I die far from you (Mexico), tell them I’m sleeping, to bring me here.”[2]

Despite these legacies, thousands of bodies near the border dividing the United States and Mexico remain in a kind of administrative purgatory. The costs of identifying the dead border crossers who have succumb to the Sonora, the Rio Grande, and violence create a backlog of bones and paperwork.[3]

Some die from violence, shot by Border Patrol agents, vigilantes or thieves. Others are killed in accidents: stumbling in rugged terrain, falling over the wall, or struck by vehicles. Many others perish of dehydration and exposure—conditions made worse by the recent sabotage of water stations set out by Border Angeles and other humanitarian groups.[4]

 Others follow the law of the river, dying in the polluted waters of the Rio Grande, swept unknown into the Gulf of Mexico.[5] 

Several problems confront the American Border Patrol and other agencies charged with identifying immigrants’ bodies and transporting them back to their families in Mexico. First, and oftentimes most thwarting, nature aggressively obscures the identity of recovered remains.[6] In some California counties, medical examiners will only file a death certificate if they find, at minimum, the skeletal remains of human extremities; others will file a certificate only if “a body part that is essential to life” has been recovered—“such as a skull or spinal column.”[7] The floodwaters of the Rio Grande and the Tijuana Rivers sometimes entirely consume these passengers.[8] 

Second, even those bodies that could be identified by normal autopsy procedures often elude identification because the deceased were too poor to leave a paper record.[9]  Third, the county morgues holding these bodies are running out of space and resources.[10] In 2006, Pima County’s chief medical examiner, after his office was forced to double the capacity of the county morgue, estimated costs at $100,000 annually to refrigerate and store bodies collected from the border.[11]

Fourth, assuming identification occurs successfully and the deceased’s family can be located, costs of repatriating the body may be prohibitive.[12] The Mexican government has borne significant costs in these transportation efforts. In 2007, it spent nearly $3.9 million in repatriating human remains.[13]  Fifth and finally, the science of documenting immigrant mortality rates receives little oversight from local and federal agencies, thus creating inaccuracies in reporting.[14] Given these inaccuracies, the federal government has not been fully apprised of the dire need of preventative measures, and rescue measures.

In their totality, these challenges to repatriation deserve more attention from local and federal governments. As burial rights must be observed even in the midst of international conflict, including illegal border crossing, more effort needs to be made to deliver the Southwest, and the bodies of its crossers, from bureaucratic purgatory. 

Dan Boyer is a 3L student and a member of the Global Justice Think Tank

[1] James Pinkerton, Burial in Mexico Proves Expensive for Many Immigrants, BanderasNews,

[2] Id.

[3] See Karl Eschbach et al., Death at the Border, 33 Int’l Migration R. 430, 430–31 (Summer 1999) (documenting more than 1,600 migrant fatalities as having occurred between 1993 and 1997 due to drowning, hyperthermia, hypothermia, and dehydration).

[4] Miriam Raftery, “DYING TO COME TO AMERICA – Immigrant Death Toll Soars; Water Stations Sabotaged,” East County Magazine,

[5] Id.

[6] Karl Eschbach et al., Death at the Border, 33 Int’l Migration R. 430, 437.

[7] Id. at 438.

[8] See id. at 449.

[9] See id. (noting that many of the deceased never “visited doctors or dentists on a regular basis, so dental or medical records may not exist. Sometimes, a family photograph of the deceased smiling widely is all investigators have to document dental work.”).

[10] Maria Jimenez, Humanitarian Crisis: Migrant Deaths at the U.S.-Mexico Border, ACLU 49 (Oct. 1, 2009).

[11] Id.

[12] See James Pinkerton, “Burial in Mexico Proves Expensive for Many Immigrants,” BanderasNews, (noting that in 2007, “the fees to prepare a body and ship it on a commercial airline [from Houston] to Mexico start at $3,500, and $4,000 for shipping remains to Central America”).

[13] Id.

[14] See Karl Eschbach et al., Death at the Border, 33 Int’l Migration R. 430, 450 (“In the absence of systematic recording of migrant deaths by a centralized agency, . . . local databases were partial and did not use common standards.”).