Johanna Carvajal walked into the funeral home and trembled. She could see the outlines of a body underneath a white sheet. The face was covered — it had decomposed so much. But the right leg was peeking out, and Johanna recognized the ornate black ink tattoo of a hummingbird fluttering above a group of flowers in bloom, etched on the skin from the side of the upper thigh to the hips.
It was then she knew, with certainty. This body in front of her was that of Esnelia Maria Carvajal, her mother.
“I wanted to be at peace, I wanted to know, and I wanted to confirm,” Johanna, 30, told Documented months after she traveled to the Laredo, Texas, funeral home last October. “I said: ‘I’m not going to rest unless I see that it’s her.’ ”
Like Esnelia, more than 800 individuals in the 2022 fiscal year died attempting to cross the southern border, with migrants dying from heat-related causes, drowning, and falls from border walls, among other causes. Customs and Border Protection figures shared with various news outlets marked 2022 as the deadliest year on record for border crossings.
While for years, many of the deaths were concentrated among groups of young men, some experts now say the deaths encompass a larger demographic scope. Groups that help find missing family members at the border say they have received many more reports of women and children who have disappeared in the past few years.
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The origin of those who have disappeared has also expanded beyond Mexico, says Mirza Monterroso, the director of the Missing Migrant Project & DNA Program at the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, a group that helps families identify their missing loved ones at the border. She notes individuals now come from countries across Central and South America, and the Caribbean, like Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, and Cuba. “This last year has been all over the place,” she said.
This trend appears to match some of the CBP numbers on apprehensions, according to the agency’s data that counts fiscal years from October through September.
In fiscal year 2020, 2,787 Venezuelans were apprehended by CBP officials at the southwest border. In the 2022 fiscal year, that number rose to 187,716 apprehensions — an increase of more than 6,600%. During the same time, Colombian national apprehensions increased by about 30,800%, and apprehension of Haitian nationals rose by more than 1,000%. Overall CBP apprehensions at the southern border also rose: 458,088 in the 2020 fiscal year to more than 2.3 million in 2022.
Dr. Gregory Hess, the Chief Medical Examiner for Pima County, Arizona, said that the number of migrant remains they have recovered and identified had increased slightly since 2020. From 2002 through 2022, the office had an average of 167 recoveries each year. In 2020 and 2021, the number of remains recovered reached about 215, and in 2022, about 174 remains were recovered.
“It waxes and wanes over time,” Dr. Hess said, adding that the Medical Examiner’s Office still identifies mostly Mexican national males in their 20s and 30s, and Central American males.
Creating a network for the missing
In cities including New York, Los Angeles and Phoenix, the Colibrí group has been working to create family networks because of the cities’ larger contingent of known relatives of missing migrants. Before Covid, groups of family members would meet in person, but now the support systems have transitioned to a mostly online presence through chats, Facebook groups and remote meetings. “They are still friends, they still meet and they help each other,” Monterroso said.
In New York, Colibrí has partnered with the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), where families in the New York area who are looking for loved ones missing at the border can submit their DNA with OCME. Monterroso said that the DNA samples can then be checked against a range of databases, increasing their chances of finding a match.
Julie Bolcer, OCME’s executive director of public affairs and senior advisor, said that the office hears from “several” families every year who say their loved ones were last known to be near the US-Mexico border. The office offers to take information, including taking a DNA sample, which can be shared with national resources “in the hopes that it will match to unknown persons in the custody of other medical examiners’ offices around the country,” Bolcer said.
Critics of some U.S. border policies say that the legal pathways to enter the United States have narrowed, and U.S. officials continue to create barriers to slow the flow of people entering. For some migrants, this means they may be compelled to look for more dangerous routes to cross, or they may come into the U.S. without legal pathways.
The enforcement of Title 42 in 2020 under the Trump administration allowed officials to expel hundreds of thousands of migrants from the U.S., who in turn were obligated to wait in Mexico, where they were subject to abuse and inhumane situations in border camps, said Jason De León, the executive director of Colibrí and a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies undocumented migration from Latin America to the United States.
“We know that if we force them to wait in these horrible camps on the Mexican side, that people will get desperate,” he said. De León says many migrants who have crossed the border are doing so after asking for asylum at a port of entry and being denied. Then, he said, they must wait in Mexico and risk being “brutalized in different ways.”
“A lot of those folks historically or previously would not have considered one of those attempts,” he said. “They were trying to legally follow the law and ask for asylum, and things like Title 42 are really forcing people’s hands.”
Despite Colibrí’s best efforts, they say of the more than 600 missing persons case reports received of people who crossed the border in 2021, 2022, and so far in 2023, more than half remain outstanding and unsolved.
Aspiring for a life in New York
Since last spring, more than 42,000 migrants have arrived in New York City, Mayor Adams said last week, with many of those migrants coming from Venezuela.
Nixalis Del Carmen Andrade Chaverra was hoping to join her fellow Venezuelans who were making their way to the City. She had dreams of arriving in New York as she wasn’t finding the economic stability she longed for in Venezuela, Peru or Chile, her ex-partner, Yendri Gutiérrez, said. So, she decided to make the journey north along with her aunt.
Gutiérrez and Andrade Chaverra were together for about six years and had lived together in Peru and Chile. “I cried to her, I asked her not to go,” Gutiérrez recalled. “We said goodbye because we weren’t sure what awaited us.”
The pair spoke during the journey as Andrade Chaverra made her way through the Darien Gap and up to the border with Texas near Piedras Negras around mid-July. But the family soon stopped hearing from her or her aunt.
Gutiérrez began posting pictures of the pair on Facebook groups, searching for phone numbers or any help they could get. Eventually, through Facebook, the family connected with someone who had been in the same travel group as Andrade Chaverra.
According to Gutiérrez, Andrade Chaverra and her aunt were swept away in the waters of the Rio Grande. They had apparently drowned as they tried to wade across the Rio Grande. At the end of July, a medical examiner’s office in Texas confirmed that they held someone matching Chaverra’s description — wearing the same clothes she had been wearing, and braces, Gutiérrez said. “No one wants that awful news, but at least you can rest because it was a desperation looking through the news every day.”
Andrade Chaverra’s mother still believes that her only daughter will come home, telling Gutiérrez and others that “she’s still alive, and that she’s traveling, and that one day she’s going to appear.”
The family has been unable to find a way for her ashes or those of her aunt to be sent back home without family members in the United States or funds to organize the shipment. And, the closure of Venezuelan consulates across the U.S. is an added barrier to getting their ashes home, Gutiérrez said.
So, in November, their ashes were laid to rest in a small ceremony led by a priest who shared his blessings in Spanish and splashed holy water over the urns of Andrade Chaverra and her aunt, videos show. For now, Andrade Chaverra’s ashes remain in a columbarium in a Texas cemetery alongside those of her aunt, thousands of miles away from any known family.
“It hasn’t been easy for anyone,” Gutiérrez said. “People loved her with everything they had.”
From New York, a daughter investigates
Johanna’s mother Esnelia was initially denied a visa to come to the U.S., her daughter said, so Esnelia opted to fly from Colombia to Guatemala, then travel by land through Mexico to the U.S. in July of 2022.
Earlier in May, Johanna had flown with a visa to New York. She had been settling into life and renting a room from friends in Jackson Heights, Queens, that she shared with her 12-year-old daughter Nicole. Once her mother arrived in the U.S., they were all going to move to Virginia to live together, she said.
Johanna and her mother were not too concerned about the last stretch of the journey since they had heard so many stories of successful border crossings. Still, Johanna said she was worried her mother was traveling with unknown men who might hurt her. She told her mom to “be careful with them,” and then cautioned her mother to memorize her phone number so that she could call her in case anything went wrong. “But no, she never reached out,” Johanna said.
The last time Johanna spoke with her mother was on July 21, before her mother crossed the Rio Grande. Johanna then spent weeks calling friends, family, consulates, and border officials in a desperate search to find her mother.
Clues came in as she investigated: a post from a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Facebook about an unidentified woman who died near Rio Bravo and looked like Esnelia; a border official who helped Johanna identify where her mother’s body may be located; someone at a Texas medical examiner’s office who confirmed that a body at the facility may match the description of her mother. And eventually, a call from the Colombian consulate in mid-August solidified her fears.
According to documents from the Webb County Medical Examiner’s Office, Esnelia Maria Carvajal, 49, died on July 22, 2022, at a ranch outside of Laredo, near the Rio Grande in Texas.
“There are days that I get up and I’m not okay,” Johanna said. “And there’s other days that are normal.”
Identifying, grieving, remembering
After the identification, Esnelia was cremated and eventually the ashes were shipped to New York, where Johanna had traveled from to seek closure about her mother’s death.
Johanna is still waiting on her mother’s autopsy report to learn the cause of death. She keeps her mother’s ashes on the floor in her small New York room and tries to continue her life as best she can, encouraging her daughter to dream big and focus on her education. Johanna works in the kitchen of a Soho restaurant, takes English classes several days a week, and takes care of her daughter, all while adjusting to their lives in New York. She got a tattoo portrait of her mother on her forearm to commemorate her life.
“Regardless of everything, the life that ended was my mother’s. Ours has to continue,” she said.
Sometimes when her phone rings, she instinctively thinks it will be her mother calling her to chat and tell her that she’s okay. She’s trying to come to terms with what happened and carries on the spirit of hard work and determination her mother showed her, raising her and her brother as a single parent in Medellín.
“I’m really grateful for her. I told her: ‘Mom, I am who I am because of you,’ ” Johanna said. “She taught me how to be responsible, I owe that to her.”
Now Johanna will soon have to make an agonizing decision: whether to send her mother’s ashes back to Colombia, the country they had both long called home, or to scatter them in the U.S., the country her mother had died trying to reach.