With young immigrants slipping into the U.S. under the mistaken impression they will be allowed to stay, Texas Gov. Rick Perry warned Monday of a deadly "trail of tears" in the unforgiving Rio Grande Valley if the federal government doesn't act.
More than 52,000 unaccompanied youths have been caught along the Southwest border this fiscal year, almost double last year's total. The influx is fueled by danger at home, experts say, and by false rumors that minors and women with young children will be welcomed.
"The governor's right: It's going to be a really bad year," said Lori Baker, an associate professor of forensic anthropology at Baylor University who has been excavating and identifying migrant remains in Texas for years, most recently this month.
"There are just so, so many people crossing," she said. "We're not going to find a lot of the remains."
Unlike earlier generations of immigrants who came prepared to cross harsh desert terrain, many today make the journey casually dressed, planning to turn themselves in for what they expect to be sanctuary. That attitude can prove fatal.
In rural Brooks County, population 7,200, the sheriff's office has only four deputies and about 15 reserves, and no medical examiner. The county recovered 87 bodies last year and 129 the year before, Chief Deputy Sheriff Urbino Martinez said, and 33 so far this year.
"If we find one body, we're probably missing 10," he said. "That's how many bodies I think are out there that haven't been discovered."
The brush is still high and green. When it dries and thins, the bones appear.
What does he see ahead this summer? "More death."
Last week, deputies found the body of a 16-year-old Central American youth who died from exposure.
On Friday, they rescued another Central American adolescent, also suffering from exposure.
A few weeks ago, Martinez said, more than 100 Guatemalan and Mexican women and children showed up at the Border Patrol checkpoint on U.S. Highway 281, overwhelming agents who were armed with cameras and drug-sniffing dogs — not blankets and baby wipes.
"They were in dire straits. They were having to go out and get formula, milk for the infants," he said.
Martinez called on Washington to fix the immigration policies that have contributed to the influx, and to send help.
"We need to protect our community and all the travelers traversing Brooks County," he said. "Without the resources, how am I going to do that?"
Last week, Perry and other Texas officials ordered a "surge" of resources at the border for the Texas Department of Public Safety, including $1.3 million a week in added spending.
State Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat vying with Republican Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott to replace Perry, supported the surge and faulted the Obama administration for not doing more.
"It truly is a humanitarian crisis," she said Monday after touring the Border Patrol's McAllen Station, which, Davis said, is processing 1,200 migrants a day, half of them children.
Abbott toured a shelter for young migrants at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland on Monday, along with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Abbott called the border situation a "man-made crisis." Cruz called it "tragic and heartbreaking," and blamed Obama.
On Monday, Perry highlighted the children's plight. Young migrants have been flown from south Texas to shelters in other parts of the state as well as to Arizona, California, Oklahoma and Massachusetts, he said.
A Department of Homeland Security official who was not authorized to speak on the record said Customs and Border Protection regularly flies unaccompanied children to different parts of the country to place them with relatives or into foster care.
Federal officials have struggled to find places to house children in recent months as more have been caught crossing and this has contributed to the crowded conditions in Border Patrol stations, the official said.
Homeland Security last week said it was rushing additional lawyers, asylum officers and immigration judges to the Texas border to help process new arrivals.
Meanwhile, in Washington, a group of Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation that would ensure immigrant youths have attorneys.
The Vulnerable Immigrant Voice Act comes as congressional committees prepare to hold hearings Tuesday and Wednesday on the crush of new arrivals from Central America.
Times staff writers Richard Simon and Brian Bennett in Washington and Cindy Carcamo in Tucson contributed to this report.