top of page

Attending a Mass Burial Ceremony in the US

Updated: Dec 1, 2023

5th Annual Indigent and Migrant Burial Ceremony for Imperial County, California. Photo by Jenn Budd.

Yes, we have mass burial ceremonies here in the United States. If you are an average American, you likely will find this strange. Most US citizens are unaware of how many migrants die on our borders or that nearly 30 years worth of immigration deterrence policies have intentionally forced millions of asylum seekers to cross in terrain that often results in their untimely deaths. It is what I refer to as a slow genocide. One that I actually took part in from 1995 - 2001.

What is unusual about Imperial County, California is that they have a ceremony to bury unidentified migrants at all. Still, this is a fate better than most crossing irregularly. All along our southern border with Mexico, the majority of migrants who have perished are never found. In the mountains, deserts and rivers that make up our southern border, you can find tens of thousands of dead migrants if you bother to look. While most are adult men and women, some are children. A small percentage are US citizen babies as they were born on a trail in the middle of nowhere on our southern border trusting in a smuggler to lead them to safety.

Baby Boy Arizaga. Born & died September 19, 2005 at milepost 19 on Arivaca Road in Arivaca, Arizona. Victim of US deterrence immigration policies. Photo: by Jenn Budd.

The drive from my house in San Diego to Imperial Valley is just under two hours. I have made this trip many times as an agent and as an immigration rights activist. Often, I listen to the radio, a podcast or a book to try and avoid the memories. I know this area like the back of my hand simply because I worked the I-8 checkpoint when it was first opened in the 1990s, and have climbed the mountains and giant boulders of the area in search of migrants. I can remember where we found their bodies; in this ravine, under that bush, leaning up against a tree, naked because they were frozen and lost their minds, in pieces because the heat exploded their stomachs and the animals carried bits away.

This was my second visit to Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville, California. Imperial County is a

Photo by Jenn Budd

farming community that spreads across the southeast California border. On my first visit some years ago, I discovered that the management had placed all the indigent and migrant grave markers, which are simply red bricks with "John" or "Jane Doe" etched in them, behind a green landscaping fence to separate them from the paying customers. There is no one to tend their grave markers, no flowers, no grass. In death, those without are still not allowed a grave among those that had means.

This year's burial consisted of fifty souls. The Public Administrator for Imperial County, Sarah M. Enz said only five were migrants this year. This is not because Border Patrol rescued so many migrants crossing the dangerous terrain. It is because this area has not seen as many crossing in the last few years as Texas and Arizona. Had the smugglers chosen to cross their groups here, there would have been many more. Ms. Enz mentioned that she just received seven unknown migrant bodies that will be in next year's ceremony.

Of those in attendance, I noticed most were Imperial County officials. One family noted that their relative was in one of the black boxes. They could not afford to cremate or bury her remains. As Ms. Enz read out each name, whether known or unknown, I distinctly heard her say two were babies. Whether they were migrant babies found by Border Patrol or babies born to families unable to provide funeral services, I do not know nor did I ask. Citizenship no longer matters to me in life. It certainly does not matter to me in death. With fifty red roses donated by Cynthia's Flower Connection, those of us in attendance placed a rose on the boxes for each person.

Last burial rights for indigents and migrants. Photo: by Jenn Budd

Imperial County is the only California county along the border doing this type of public ceremony. Ms. Enz explained to me that the Public Administrator's Office lives with these boxes of ashes in their offices throughout the year. She is quite proud of her efforts to recognize those in her community who lost their lives and have no one to lay them to rest. It is the final moment in a human being's life where we can at least try to strip away all the differences, all the disagreements and simply be kind.

We do not have public burials of indigents and migrants in San Diego County. While the investigations of unknown persons or indigents are generally handled in the same manner from county to county, it is the burial of migrants that can differ. Both Imperial and San Diego County Public Administrator Offices stated that the investigators work with the consulates of foreign countries to try and identify migrant bodies and that this is where DNA samples would be taken along with photos of clothing, tattoos and jewelry that may help loved ones identify the decedent. There is not a single database to hold this information collectively, not one that people who are missing loved ones can search.

Recently, the University of Arizona's Binational Migrant Institute held a conference. Topics included: reclassification to prevent undercounting, how Title 42 caused a dramatic increase in migrant deaths, increases in "blunt force trauma" as the cause of migrant deaths, difficulties of families reporting missing loved ones, DNA samples for identification and funding needed, and the lack of transparency with Border Patrol. Some issues are difficult to address simply because there is no infrastructure to support identifications; out of 254 counties in Texas, only 13 have medical examiners and only 2 of those are border counties.

Since October 1994, the US Border Patrol has engaged in genocidal deterrence policies meant to decrease irregular immigration or crossing in between the ports of entry without inspection. The stated goal of the US government was to force migrants who were increasingly prevented from applying at a port of entry to cross not in the large cities along the border, but to push them out to the most dangerous border terrain. This is the single cause of tens of thousands of migrant deaths.

As I drove back to San Diego, I wondered how president after president could ignore tens of thousands of bodies of men, women, children and babies. How can the federal government create a system that knowingly and intentionally sends migrant families to their deaths and not even bother to maintain an accurate death count or a database for loved ones to search?

US immigration policies have created a mass graveyard on our southern border. In Texas, they have found migrants' bodies thrown into mass graves. In Arizona and California, they have found entire groups dead in the deserts. Those drowned in the Rio Grande River often are discovered in Mexico and not counted. The Border Patrol refuses to count any bodies not found by them, and have been found to not even count many of those they do find.

The Border Patrol puts the number of deaths due to deterrence policies at a little over 10,000, but Border Patrol only responds 37% of the time.

The federal government does not want a national database of deceased migrants killed by deterrence policies. They do not want to reconcile Border Patrol's ridiculously undercounted migrant deaths with the counts of academics. They do not want searchers even looking on the Barry Goldwater Bombing Range in Arizona because there are so many groups of migrant bodies it would be a national atrocity. They do not want public burials of migrants killed by their deterrence policies that have failed for 30 years because they believe these deaths are acceptable. They are deemed necessary for US national security.

I will return to the Annual Indigent and Migrant Burial Ceremony in Imperial County next year. It may be a mass ceremony, a mass funeral, but it is at least a something. It was a few moments to pause and think about what our country is doing in the name of national security as politicians scapegoat their failures to justify thousands upon thousands of dead migrants.


bottom of page