A day after a lengthy Brooks County commissioners' meeting, County Judge Raul Ramirez made a decision that will likely anger members of civil rights groups, cause him to break the law, and could put him in jail or prison.
"I've exhausted every other option," he said. "We need help."
Ramirez vowed to follow the county's budget for the upcoming fiscal year, starting October 1st. The decision means, once money set aside for immigration related burial costs runs out, Brooks County will stop recovering and burying the remains of undocumented immigrants found in brushy land near the Falfurrias Border Patrol Checkpoint. The remains belong to people who died trying to avoid federal agents stationed at the checkpoint, located in the heart of the county, but Ramirez says the law requires Brooks County to pay the bill. Sheriff deputies have found 76 sets so far this year. Last year, they found 129 sets of remains.
The pictures are gruesome.
Photo after photo, sent to us by a law enforcement agent, show human bones found in overgrown weeds on ranches near the checkpoint.
"If the United States Border Patrol is following a group of immigrants and (the immigrants) become ill, they'll take them to the doctor," Ramirez said. "They'll put a border patrol agent in the hospital to make sure he's taken care of, and they'll foot the bill. But if he dies, they call Brooks County."
Chief Deputy Benny Martinez said each set costs the county, "somewhere in the area of $2500 to $3000 per body."
County money is used to pay deputies to find bones and bodies, look for identification, and log GPS coordinates. It's also used to pay the funeral home. In addition, autopsies which require transport to an out-of-county medical examiner, start at $1500. The costs increase if foul play is suspected, but the base quote is roughly the equivalent of a deputy's monthly take home salary.
Brooks County doesn't sit along the Rio Grande, and therefore, not considered a border county, which would make it eligible for federal help.
If figures are correct, the county has spent more than half a million dollars burying human remains in less than two years.
In order to avoid going broke before the new fiscal year, Brooks County recently cut jobs, salaries, and health benefits for their employees' families.
"We just couldn't save the dependent (medical) coverage so far," Ramirez said. " We're trying to work on the children aspect of it, but as far as spouses, we couldn't save that. That hurts me, too, because that means my spouse, the only insurance she had was mine, and she be without insurance."
Mark Jones chairs Rice University's political science department.
"Brooks County is suffering from an unfunded federal mandate," he said.
Ramirez has had enough. The start of a new fiscal year gives him a fresh budget and a fresh start.
"When we run out of money, that it," he said. "I've been asking for help for years. It's fallen on deaf ears. So now, somebody else, worry about it. Take me to jail."
It's a big decision from a county judge who has already had civil rights activists hold protests outside his office. The protesters were upset because the dead hadn't been DNA tested before burial.
That uproar eventually led to volunteers from Baylor University digging up graves in hopes of identifying the people inside and notifying their families of their fate.
Judge Ramirez doesn't expect his new decision to be a popular one, but he says it's necessary.
"When you don't have any money in the bank, you don't have any money in the bank. You don't just keep on spending because the law says you have to."