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Migrant deaths leave tough task of home burials

Families, officials staggered by The Washington Post | April 12, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

For more than a year, Mexican consulates across the United States have cataloged the toll the coronavirus has taken on America's migrant workforce, one desperate phone conversation at a time. Thousands of Mexicans in the United States, most of them unauthorized immigrants deemed "essential workers" by state labor departments, have died of covid-19.

Even in death, their immigration status haunted them. That's where the Mexican diplomats came in: It was their job to repatriate the bodies of the pandemic dead.

It was a task that ended up consuming vast parts of the government. At one point, Mexico dispatched a military jet to retrieve hundreds of urns.

But more often, it was a quiet, sad exercise -- unlike any the country's diplomats were used to. A young consular officer in Florida, for example, boarded a flight to Mexico City with several urns as hand luggage. A veteran ambassador in California found herself trying to help bury one of her own employees.

And sometimes Mexican families grew tired of waiting for their government to act and took things into their own hands. Some started fundraisers to pay the $4,000 it typically costs to repatriate a body. Others smuggled coffins across the border themselves.

Mexico received 7,434 requests to repatriate the bodies of migrants in 2020, up from 4,410 in 2019, an increase of 68%. The U.S. death rate increased 15.9% from 2019 to 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While millions of Americans are now getting vaccinated, unauthorized migrants are still struggling to sign up for their own inoculations. In some cases that's because pharmacies require IDs to make appointments. In others, it's because the migrants worry that going to a vaccination site could lead to deportation.

"These were people who, if they didn't work, they didn't get paid," said Juan Sabines, the Mexican consul general in Orlando, Fla. "So they kept working, and they got sick."

Mexican government statistics suggest the disproportionate impact on migrants. Sometimes the deaths were concentrated: Sixteen Mexicans who worked in the meatpacking industry in Nebraska, for example, died of covid-19 in 2020.

In the early days of the pandemic, Mexico's government struggled to navigate a web of public health regulations and individual airline rules that made repatriating bodies nearly impossible. Diplomats were overwhelmed with calls.

Sebastian Benitez's mother got sick last April and her condition deteriorated quickly. He knew he needed to start thinking about where she wanted to be buried.

He remembered something she had said about wanting to return to her native village, San Pedro Calantla in the state of Puebla. Burial back home was a sentiment immortalized in the country's iconic song "Mexico Lindo y Querido," an immigrant's hymn.

"My dear and beautiful Mexico," the narrator says, "if I die far away from you, let them say that I'm sleeping, so they'll bring me back to you."

Benitez's mother migrated from Puebla to New York in 1993. She worked in Brooklyn as a nanny and housekeeper. She raised two U.S. citizen sons and eventually became a permanent resident herself. But it was her village that she considered home.

In the days after she died, Benitez became single-minded in his focus on getting her body back to Puebla. The Mexican consulate in New York told him her remains would need to be cremated, something Benitez and many Mexicans consider abhorrent.

"So I basically took things into my own hands," he said.

The task was so complicated that Benitez quit his job as a consultant to focus on it full time.

"I was going back and forth between CDC guidelines, [Department of Homeland Security] guidelines, New York City health department guidelines," he said. "There was what the funeral home said, what the airline said, what the Mexican government said."

He says he called about 100 funeral homes. Each said the same thing: We won't repatriate a body unless it's cremated.

One funeral home held Benitez's mother's body for three months. In July, he finally got permission to put it on a plane to Mexico City. From there, it was transferred to another plane bound for Puebla.

When Benitez arrived in the village, he says, he was surrounded by strangers who told him their relatives had died in the United States, too.

"They wanted to know how I got the body back and could I help them."

In Mexico City, officials were struggling to figure out how to keep up with the expatriate death toll. In July, the foreign ministry contacted the military. Could they use an air force supply aircraft to bring the dead home?

The plane arrived at the Mexico City airport on the night of July 11 carrying 245 urns. Service members lined some of the urns on a table and placed flowers in front of them for pictures. The Mexican government called the mission "unprecedented."

After that, the calls increased.

"The principal reasons we hear are, 'I want my mom to see my brother again,' or 'I want my father-in-law to see his son,'" said Marcela Celorio, the Mexican consul general in Los Angeles. "For Mexicans, it's the physical presence of the body that helps bring closure."

The demand has continued into 2021. Milenio, one of the country's major newspapers, has published a guide: "What to do if a relative dies of covid in the United States and you want to transport them to Mexico."

In Los Angeles, one of the members of the company hired to clean the Mexican consulate fell ill. When Martin Rosales died, the consulate helped send his body to his home state of Colima.

"You will always be our hero," Celorio posted on Instagram beneath a photo of the two of them.

In many cases, when families decide to send the bodies of their relatives to Mexico for burial, it means their loved ones in the United States -- who are often unauthorized -- are unable to attend the funerals.

When Hector's younger brother, Juan, died in Las Vegas late last year, Hector sent the body back to their hometown in central Mexico.

"More than anything, it was to help put my mother at peace," he said. "For her comfort."

Juan had migrated to the United States three years earlier and was working for a cleaning company. Both he and Hector were unauthorized. Hector spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his immigration status.

He had to choose: Would he return with the body for the funeral, or would he stay in the United States, where he was earning enough to send money back to his family? He decided to stay in Nevada.

Hector watched videos and looked at photos of his brother's funeral on his phone.

"But really I don't know how it was," he said.

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