FALFURRIAS, Texas (Reuters) - Mounds of dirt decorated with fake flowers sit at the northern edge of the cemetery in this town about 80 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Small metal placards mark the graves of the unknown, generally by gender, while others simply say "bones" or "skull case."
It is here that more than 50 unidentified immigrants were buried after dying in heat and punishing terrain while they tried to seek new lives in the United States. As legislators in Washington debate bipartisan proposals for an immigration overhaul, Texas officials say this small town, the seat of Brooks County and part of the U.S. Border Patrol region known as the Rio Grande Valley sector, is emerging as an epicenter of death and misery.
Sheriffs' deputies in the county - population less than 5,000 - found 129 bodies in 2012, about double the number from the year before and six times that recorded in 2010. This year so far - before the hot summer months, when the majority of deaths occur - they've found 17, said Brooks County Judge Raul Ramirez.
In the Rio Grande Valley sector as a whole, which comprises 17,000 square miles of southeast Texas, Border Patrol agents also are recording a rise in deaths and apprehensions. Enrique Mendiola, the USBP spokesman for the area, said 78 immigrant deaths and 357 rescues have been recorded in the sector since the government fiscal year began last October 1. In the same period the year before, he said there were 42 deaths and 137 rescues.
For reasons that remain unclear - law enforcement authorities refuse to speculate - the number of deaths in the Rio Grande region is rising while those in Arizona - which typically records the highest immigrant death toll in the entire southern border region - dropped from 253 in fiscal year 2009-10 to 77 since last October, according to the Coalicion de Derechos Humanos. (The human rights group tracks immigrant deaths in Arizona.) Mendiola said immigrants can easily lose their way in the flat, Texas brush country. In Arizona they can use the mountains and other natural landmarks use as directional markers.
Most of the bodies recovered in Brooks County were buried without a forensic examination, which the county cannot afford. Texas law offers guidelines on how to handle remains, but how that is carried out depends on the county.
"They've never had an autopsy," said Lori Baker, a physical anthropologist at Baylor University, of those in the cemetery.
Ramirez said the ongoing discoveries of deceased immigrants have put a strain on local authorities. Each time someone finds a body, a deputy must respond to the scene, often miles from any roadway, and the justice of the peace must officially declare the person dead.
Each body bag alone costs $740, Ramirez said, an extra $95,000 burden on the county last year.
Local authorities are still trying to learn more about the dead. Baker is leading a team that will exhume 54 marked graves in Falfurrias to collect DNA samples and perform tests to uncover the immigrants' age, sex and causes of death. The DNA will be sent to a lab to be cataloged in missing-person databases.
"I'm concerned as to how they're making these identifications because none of them have training in forensic science," Baker said.
The Border Patrol's Mendiola said that as smugglers, or "coyotes," have continued to capitalize on the demand for guides into the United States, the number of people caught has grown.
Most immigrants pay several thousand dollars to gain passage across the border and the checkpoint south of Falfurrias, he said. "These smugglers are just ruthless," Mendiola said. When someone falls behind as a group threads its way through private ranch land, "they're just going to leave them behind, because that's lost revenue for them."
Even those already familiar with the dangers and hardship involved remain willing to take the risk.
Honduran citizen Olebin Rivera, 32, told Reuters he was trying to return to the United States after being deported 10 years ago. He wants to go to Houston, where he can work as a painter or roofer to support his 3-year-old son and wife back in Honduras.
Rivera said he's hopeful that Washington will reform its immigration policies, but for now "there's no promise." He said he has heard the stories of immigrants losing their lives on the journey north but is not afraid.
Maria Carmen Ruiz Rocha, 34, is equally determined. At the Casa del Migrante in Reynosa, Mexico, across the border from McAllen, Texas — a shelter, run by Catholic nuns, where immigrants can stay for a few days before moving on — she talked of how she missed her husband and two children in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where she says she lived for 15 years working as a housekeeper. (While her husband had a work visa, she did not. Their children were born in the United States.)
Ruiz Rocha returned to her native Guanajuato state in Mexico in February to take care of her mother, who died at the end of March. Two days after her mother's death, Ruiz Rocha said authorities arrested her in Progreso, Texas, downstream from Reynosa - one of the unlucky members of her group who was not able to escape the authorities. After appearing before an immigration judge, she said she was deported to Reynosa.
"The judge told me I didn't have a right to be there," she said. A few days after she was deported, she crossed again and was again caught and returned. Each time she said she paid a coyote $4,000.
Ruiz Rocha's family has exhausted their means to pay for another crossing, something she says is difficult to explain to her 12-year-old son when he calls, asking why she won't come home.
"I want to go another time," she said. "I need to cross. I don't have anything here. My life is there."
(This story has been corrected to remove extraneous words in paragraph 5)
Editing by Arlene Getz, Prudence Crowther and Douglas Royalty