EDINBURG, Texas — When authorities found the body of an 11-year-old boy in South Texas, a phone number for his brother in Chicago was scribbled on the inside of his belt buckle.
The boy, wearing “Angry Birds” jeans, black leather boots and a white rosary around his neck, had come from his home country of Guatemala and apparently got lost in the Texas brush, just a few miles from the border with Mexico and less than a mile from the nearest home.
While hundreds of immigrants die crossing the border each year, the discovery of Gilberto Francisco Ramos Juarez’s decomposed body in the Rio Grande Valley earlier this month highlights the perils unaccompanied children face as the U.S. government searches for ways to deal with record numbers of children crossing into the country illegally.
“Down here finding a decomposed body . . . we come across them quite often,” Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra said Monday, adding that this was the first child immigrant his office has found since he became sheriff in April. “It’s a very dangerous journey.”
Separately Monday, President Barack Obama announced that he will no longer wait for Republicans to act on immigration and will move on his own to make policy changes in what has been a top second-term priority of his presidency. Obama said he decided to bypass Congress after House Speaker John Boehner informed him last week that the House would not vote on an immigration overhaul this year.
More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended entering the U.S. illegally since October, creating what Obama has called an “urgent humanitarian situation.” Most are from Central America and the vast majority have crossed into the Rio Grande Valley in southernmost Texas.
The surge in unaccompanied child immigrants has overwhelmed the Border Patrol here. The children by law must be turned over to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department within 72 hours of their arrest, but their numbers have made that difficult.
Many of the children simply turn themselves in to the first law enforcement person they see, so Guerra said it was unusual to find a child in this more remote area — near La Joya, about 20 miles west of McAllen. The boy’s body was found June 15.
Investigators were able to reach the boy’s brother in Chicago with the phone number on the child’s belt buckle. It’s not uncommon for immigrants to put relatives’ phone numbers on their clothing because scraps of paper can get lost or wet during their journey.
The boy’s brother gave authorities his father’s phone number in Guatemala. With the help of the Guatemalan consulate, the father gave a sworn statement identifying the boy’s clothing, including “Angry Birds” jeans, his boots and rosary.
The cause of death has not been determined, but authorities suspect heat stroke, Guerra said. An autopsy did not find signs of trauma and the pathologist estimated the body had been there for about two weeks. Until the family confirmed his age, authorities thought he was an older teenager.
The boy’s family in Huehuetenango, Chiantla, Guatemala, had last heard from him about 25 days before his body was found. At that time, he was in Reynosa, Mexico, waiting to cross the border. His father told authorities the boy was traveling with a coyote.
Although the number of immigrant children who have died crossing into Texas was not immediately available, such discoveries are not unheard of.
Dr. Lori Baker, an anthropologist at Baylor University has spent years exhuming immigrant graves along the border and trying to identify them. Earlier this month, she spent two weeks exhuming 52 graves at cemetery in Falfurrias, about an hour north of the border. She made a similar excavation last year. Baker said she recalled exhuming an infant, a 2-year-old, a 6-year-old and a pre-teen.
“Their bones are small and not easily seen in the brush,” Baker said. “With all of the carnivore activity … I fear that there will be many more that die than what can be found. The same is true for adults but magnified for children.”