Death of unidentified migrant who died in federal custody after testing positive for COVID-19 highlights complex state process

11 months 1 day 18 hours ago Friday, July 10 2020 Jul 10, 2020 July 10, 2020 10:32 PM July 10, 2020 in News - Coronavirus Pandemic

Morgue space is running low in the Rio Grande Valley, but counties are facing a different challenge when dealing with deaths along the border. An unidentified migrant who dies after testing positive for COVID-19 can throw officials into a process complicated even before the pandemic. Starr County was faced with this unprecedented event on Thursday.

On Sunday, Border Patrol agents found a migrant woman barely alive in La Grulla. She was unwell and taken to Starr County Memorial Hospital. Doctors tried to help, but she didn't make it. "She was in poor condition. She needed to be intubated and on ventilatory support. And, unfortunately, she died a few hours later," Dr. Jose Vazquez, Starr County Memorial Hospital Board President, said.

"We really didn't know how to handle that, because this it's the first time that this has happened," Starr County Judge Eloy Vera said of the situation that followed.

No one knows who the woman is. Normally, immigrants travel with identification from their home country. Many times, phone numbers of loved ones are found in their pockets, shoes or seams of their clothes. Border Patrol agents told Starr County Emergency Management Coordinator Lennard Fuentes they ran her fingerprints through their federal data composite system. The query yielded nothing.

A woman without an identity becomes a Jane Doe. Disposing of unidentified human remains is governed by state statutes, but the process can feel like a Catch-22.

The state's Health and Safety code regulates this grim process.

A crematory establishment cannot accept unidentified human remains unless an order is issued from the county's commissioners court or a court within its jurisdiction, according to the law under Section 716.101.

Vera considered this option.

"So, they called and I said, "Well, I know we've had some issues before with the Consulates when we would bury John Does and Jane Does,"" Vera said.

The trepidation is merited. Disposing of unidentified human remains is nuanced in Texas, especially when a different statute under the criminal code seemingly contradicts the one found in the health code.

A recent study by U.T. Austin's Strauss Center for International Security and Law highlighted this issue.

"State laws are unclear, if not contradictory, on counties’ authority to cremate unidentified remains. The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure states that “a person may not cremate or direct the cremation” of unidentified remains. However, the Texas Health & Human Safety code permits the cremation of unidentified individuals’ remains when authorized by a county court. This discrepancy should be addressed to avoid the cremation of any unidentified individuals."

As the judge, emergency management coordinator, hospitals and other municipal leaders talked about what to do with the body, it was already starting to decompose.

"Well, we cannot keep the body just there and run the risk of contaminating more people," Vera said.

The judge and Fuentes both said they could try and cremate the body if they collected DNA samples that could help identify the woman later. They faced a roadblock there, too.

"From what I understand from the hospital nobody here is doing autopsies on COVID victims; and, in order to get DNA you need to do an autopsy, from what I understand," Fuentes said.

This problem can only be resolved by clearly written and interpreted statutes, the UT Austin study found.

"The Texas Health & Human Safety code should be amended to remove county officials’ discretion to cremate unidentified remains and ensure it is not in conflict with the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. This would preserve the possibility of future identification, even if pathologists did not first collect biological reference samples. It would also grant matched families the ability to view their relatives’ remains to provide certainty and closure.67 Additionally, religious traditions or cultural practices may also oppose cremation."

In the meantime, Vera and Fuentes anticipate facing this problem again.

Currently, the number of apprehensions along the border are rising. In April, the numbers decreased as the South Texas border began shutting down due to the pandemic. Border Patrol Rio Grande Valley Sector agents detained 3,322 people crossing into the U.S. By June, there was an increase for a total of 5,359.

Starr County ended the stalemate by reaching out to the state and a neighboring hospital in Edinburg. The woman's body was moved to a refrigerated trailer where it will lay until a solution is found for this novel problem expected to become more common.

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