Putting a name to those who died crossing the border

(CBS News) FALFURRIAS, Texas - One day after the Senate voted to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, President Obama called on House leaders and urged them to do the same.

These Baylor University anthropology students are digging up graves at a cemetery in Falfurrias, Texas, consisting of illegal immigrants who died due to heat or lack of water. CBS News

Here's why this matters: When the U.S. beefed up patrols on the Mexican border, illegal immigrants took to crossing in remote areas. Many have died -- more than 450 last year. Often they're buried unidentified in pauper's graveyards. We found a project in south Texas to name the dead.

A team of Baylor University anthropology students dug up 63 graves at a cemetery in Falfurrias, Texas. They were marked "unknown." Many have been here less than a year.

The dead are illegal immigrants who succumbed to heat or lack of water as they crossed the rugged terrain in Brooks County. It's 80 miles from the border with Mexico.

"This shouldn't happen. These types of death shouldn't happen," said chief deputy Benny Martinez, who tracks the deaths in a binder. Last year, he filled three. About 129 bodies were discovered -- more than double the year before.

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"A lot of it, it has to do with them being told that the trip is short," answered Martinez on why these people are dying. "This false dream, this false hope that they can get across. And they're not prepared for it."

Lori Baker is a Baylor University anthropologist and director of Reuniting Families. The program tries to identify the remains and contact relatives. Some graves are practically on top of each other.

On what it tells her that the graves are closely spaced together, Baker said: "It's telling me that there are people dying way too quickly and too much, if they have that many to bury that they're not even spaced out."

Human remains are brought to a lab at Baylor. Baker and her students do the forensic work Brooks County cannot afford.

These bones brought to Baylor University are among some of the remains of illegal immigrants who have died while crossing the border from Mexico to the United States. CBS News

"They're doing everything that they know to do, and everything that they can for these cases, but they don't have forensic personnel in these counties," she said.

There are few clues: cell phones and shreds of clothing. Often, it's just bones.

"We're talking about somebody who I think estimated somewhere around nine-months-old," Baker said, showing a piece of the remains of one victim. "And we did find safety pins in the grave."

The information is put into a database. DNA samples are matched to living relatives who can arrange a proper burial.

"And universally," said Baker, "when you talk to mothers, that's what they say: 'Now I have a place to go and pray. I have them home.'"

So far this year, Brooks County had recovered 32 bodies. That's surpassed last year's record pace, and the summer months are still ahead.