SARITA, Texas — If you’ve driven to South Padre Island, you’ve been to Kenedy County. You just may not have noticed it.
There is no place to stop—no gas station, no restaurant. Just the highway, ranches and 350 residents.
“When it's raining and it's green and the country's just busting at the seams, I tell you, we live in heaven,” says Kenedy County Judge Chuck Burns. “If it's drought conditions and hadn't rained for a while (and) everything's brown, I'll tell you we live in hell.”
Burns knows this area better than most. He’s a fifth-generation Kenedy County resident and a ranch owner.
“We run steers and we also have a hunting operation,” Burns told KENS 5. “We're the third-least-populated county in Texas in the fourth-least-populated county in the United States.”
Burns has a vested interest in what goes on in Kenedy County. So, he became a judge last summer, filling a vacant spot. This year he’s running to hold the seat officially. When he took the job, he expected it would entail the typical county judge duties. There is one, however, that caught him by surprise.
“We have an expense of recovering dead bodies that is very unforgiving terrain here,” Burns said. “Some of these people don't make it through. We’re encountering a greater number of bodies, for a lack of a better way to put it.”
Burns told KENS 5 he didn’t expect he and the county would be in the body-recovery business.
“That was not on my radar, to tell you the truth,” Burns said
The judge is talking about bodies of suspected migrants making their way north from the U.S.-Mexico border.
“There's no reason for them to stop here,” Burns said. “They're coming through to the rest of Texas in the United States.”
“I've lived here my whole life and understand the plight of the people coming through here and just how dangerous it is,” he added. “But as far as the extent of the numbers we were seeing and as fast as it was rising, when I took the office, I wasn’t expecting that to be on my radar as something I've really got to address to pay for, actually.”
Burns told KENS 5 that with body-recovery operations come additional expenses, including paying for an autopsy, for example.
“The numbers can skyrocket very quickly,” he said. “There is no way we could afford to foot the bill to do what is needed in this area. So, it was very imperative for me to reach for help and not neglect my responsibilities.”
Kenedy County is one of 53 in Texas that have signed border traffic-related disaster declarations and submitted those to the governor’s office.
“Kenedy County has suffered widespread severe damage, injury, loss of life and property due to the imminent threat resulting from immigrants using Kenedy County as a corridor for the transport of weapons, drugs and human trafficking,” the local disaster declaration reads, in part.
According to the governor’s office, the 53 counties include Bee, Brewster, Brooks, Chambers, Colorado, Crane, Crockett, Culberson, DeWitt, Dimmit, Duval, Edwards, Frio, Galveston, Goliad, Gonzalez, Hudspeth, Jackson, Jeff Davis, Jim Hogg, Jim Wells, Kenedy, Kimble, Kinney, Kleberg, La Salle, Lavaca, Live Oak, Mason, Maverick, McCulloch, McMullen, Medina, Menard, Midland, Pecos, Presidio, Real, Refugio, San Patricio, Schleicher, Sutton, Terrell, Throckmorton, Uvalde, Val Verde, Victoria, Webb, Wharton, Wilbarger, Wilson, Zapata and Zavala.
Burns also provided the state with estimates of how much money his county would need to recupe the various costs associated with migration.
According to the documentation he provided KENS 5, last summer the county filled out what is called a Border Cost Estimate Form, which detailed to the state the county’s expenses, including the need for specialty all-terrain vehicles, overtime for telecommunication officers “due to the surge from the border crisis,” and body recovery, including removal, autopsy and funeral expenses.
Burns asked the state for money from Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star grant program, funded by the legislature.
“We have a responsibility to address the problem,” he said. “We can't just stick our head in the sand.”
Judge Burns told KENS 5 that within the last few weeks the state granted Kenedy County more than $700,000.
“It's a great start, and we're going to work with that,” he said.
If the county needs more, Burns said he’ll ask for more.
“We're still kind of a gateway into the rest of Texas as well as United States, we feel it important that we do our part,” he said.
Burns said the way this grant worked: the county has to get reimbursed from the state for border-related expenses.
The county is now going through the gruesome task of counting the bodies of suspected migrants it has handled to get paid back for that.