Monday, August 22, 2016

Identifying Migrant Deaths in South Texas


The rise in migrant deaths at the South Texas Border has created a humanitarian crisis.  The dead have been buried as “unknown” without proper analyses or DNA collection, leaving no hope of identification. With recent exhumations of these “unknowns”, Texas State University faculty and students are helping to identify and repatriate these individuals to their families.

The Humanitarian Crisis at The South Texas Border

"People sometimes have difficulty understanding why the families of those who die in disasters are so invested in the recovery of their loved ones' bodies...It is when the remains of their loved ones are returned to the family that the more personal experience of the death tends to begin. " Gerard Jacobs, 2014

In 1994, the United States Border Patrol (USBP) adopted the policy “Prevention through Deterrence” as the operational strategy of choice for securing the US-Mexico border.  This strategy deterred migrant crossings in populated areas that were relatively safe and instead forced migrants to cross in more remote and dangerous areas (Haddal 2010).  As a result, a funnel effect was created that led to an increase in migrant apprehensions and deaths (Rubio-Goldsmith 2006).  The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner (PCOME) located in Tucson, Arizona receives the remains of migrants, due to their proximity to the border.  The PCOME also keeps official statistics on border deaths. In 2000, as a result of “Prevention through Deterrence”, migrant death rates began to rise.  Between the years of 1990 to 1999, 129 deaths occurred along the Arizona-Mexico border in contrast to the 802 deaths that occurred within the next five years (Rubio-Goldsmith et al. 2006).

Although USBP strategies have historically aimed to stop migrants before entering the US, the problem still remains that migration and death continue, creating a humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border. Until recently the majority of migrant deaths occurred in Arizona despite the fact that the Texas-Mexico border covers 1,254 miles of the 1,900 miles of the entire border (Texas Tribune, 2014). However, in 2012 Texas surpassed Arizona in deaths, with the majority occurring in the Rio Grande Valley and more specifically in Brooks, County, Texas (USBP, 2012).

The Mass Disaster in Brooks County, Texas

In Texas, unlike Arizona, not all migrant deaths are sent to a medical examiner’s office.  Brooks County, Texas receives the highest reported number of undocumented migrant deaths each year (80 in 2011, 129 in 2012, and [Grave Marker] 87 in 2013, and these deaths fall under the jurisdiction of a Justice of the Peace (JP), as there is no medical examiner within the county.  When any individual dies and the circumstances surrounding death are unknown, the Texas Code of Criminal Procedures requires a forensic examination, collection of DNA samples, and submission of paperwork to an unidentified and missing persons database.  However, due to the high volume of deaths and lack of county resources, the local JP and Brooks County Sheriff’s Office were overwhelmed and began to bury the undocumented migrants, most without proper analyses or collection of DNA samples, leaving little chance that these individuals will ever be returned to their families.  In turn, families are left without knowing what has happened to their son, daughter, mother, father, brother or sister.

In response to the migrant burials in Brooks County, Dr. Lori Baker (Baylor University) and Dr. Krista Latham (University of Indianapolis) and their students performed voluntary exhumations of these burials for the purpose of skeletal analysis and DNA sampling in hopes of facilitating positive identifications and returning individuals to their families.  However, the majority of the exhumations contained individuals in early to late stages of decomposition, requiring storage until the remains could be prepared for analysis.  Because the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS) has large scale storage, processing, and analysis capabilities due to the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) and the Osteological Research and Processing Laboratory (ORPL), the undocumented migrant remains (57 in 2013 and 20 in 2014) were brought to FACTS for processing (maceration to skeletal remains) and analysis to facilitate identification. Teaching, research, and service are the pillars of the FACTS mission.

Once in FACTS custody, all remains are taken to a special enclosure within FARF while faculty and students conduct intake procedures that involve opening body bags and documenting the condition of remains and personal effects.  At this time, personal effects are removed and placed in plastic bags for freezer storage until they can be hand-washed and dried for photography. Thus far, in our work towards identification, personal effects have played a major role in narrowing down the identity of remains because family members report what their loved one was wearing when they were last seen alive.  Once the remains have been processed at ORPL, they are analyzed to generate a biological profile, the estimation of age, sex, geographic origin, and height.  [Shirt] Additionally, any trauma or pathology is noted.

"The man tied a [brown plad] shirt around the knee to help him walk.  He was left behind under a tree, somewhere near Falfurrias, Texas.  The family visited Falfurrias and were shown pictures of a body that they believe is Oscar*, but were told that the body had already been buried and there was no DNA sample to confirm identity."

Excerpt from a missing persons report taken by the Colibri Center for Human Rights and upload into NamUS

*name has been changed

The Identification Process

The identification process for any unidentified human remains usually begins with entering the biological profile, along with all case information, including personal effects, into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).  Because NamUs contains both missing persons information (reported by family) and unidentified persons information (reported by medical examiners, anthropologists, or law enforcement), FACTS faculty and students can search through records of the missing and unidentified to narrow down potential matches.  If a missing person in NamUs is a potential match to an unidentified person, the family of the missing person can submit a DNA sample to the University of North Texas (UNT) and FACTS will submit a DNA sample from the skeletal remains.  Identity can be established or ruled out based on comparison of the DNA profiles.  Additionally, DNA testing through UNT is free.

Alternatively, if the biological profile of an unidentified individual does not have any potential matches within NamUs, a DNA sample from the skeletal remains is submitted to UNT and the DNA profile generated will be stored in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).  CODIS contains DNA from families and unidentified human remains.  CODIS will cross-reference DNA from unidentified human remains with DNA samples from families to see if there are any potential matches (identifications).

Problems With Identification For Undocumented Migrants

Resources for decedent identification within the US, such as NamUS and CODIS often lack missing persons information or appropriate DNA samples from family for comparison to undocumented migrant deaths. While DNA profiles of unidentified remains are cross-referenced with DNA from the families of missing persons within CODIS, CODIS does not allow foreign nationals to submit DNA samples unless there is a potential for a one-to-one match (e.g. based on circumstantial evidence, missing persons case A is likely one in the same as unidentified persons case A).  Therefore, although DNA samples from undocumented persons are submitted to CODIS, there is no DNA for comparison, therefore no identifications will be made.

The process of identification of migrant remains in Texas, as in every other border state requires collaboration with multiple agencies. Currently FACTS collaborates with the Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense (EAAF) and with the Colibrí Center for Human Rights to facilitate migrant identifications. The EAAF and Colibrí provide a mechanism for families of missing migrants to file missing persons reports. These agencies also provide a mechanism for families to submit DNA samples that can be sent to a private DNA lab for comparison. FACTS faculty maintain a close working relationship with these agencies in addition to foreign consulates and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as some of the cases represent individuals under the age of 18.  Working with all of these agencies has resulted in one positive identification of a young woman from Honduras and another pending identification.

Request for Funding

The amount of migrant deaths recovered from Brooks County, Texas in 2012 is equivalent to the passenger capacity of a Boeing 737. If a 737 crashes, it is considered a mass disaster and state funding is spent to facilitate recovery and identification of the passengers. Because these migrant deaths accumulate slowly, albeit in the same geographic location, they are not considered a mass disaster and no funding has been released to adequately process this particular mass fatality. While Texas State University has the facilities to handle such a mass fatality, our efforts are strictly voluntary. Because FACTS also has a large willed body donation program, processing both the donated remains (~70 per year) and the migrant remains is time consuming and requires full time efforts. Time is of the essence in trying to identify these individuals.

We are seeking funding for a full time project manager and a part-time project assistant to ensure that the migrant deaths are processed in a timely fashion that will facilitate identification and repatriation of remains to families. The full time project manager will supervise all processing and analysis of remains, organize case information, serve as point of contact for collaboration with all external agencies including but not limited to the EAAF, Colibrí Center for Human Rights, foreign consulate offices, law enforcement, and NCMEC.  The project assistant will facilitate processing of human remains, assist with analysis, provide data entry into internal databases and NamUs, and supervise undergraduate students to wash and photograph personal effects for upload to NamUs, DNA sample collection, and assist in searching for possible matches with missing persons.

With funding we anticipate we can analyze all cases, upload to NamUs, submit DNA samples to UNT and private labs as needed, and work towards identification on the remaining 53 cases in our laboratory within a two-year time period.  Without funding, it may take five years or longer to complete this work. Traditional funding sources, such as the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Justice, and the National Institute of Health only fund research. Operation Identification is an applied project, not research oriented, that benefits the many families who are missing loved ones. Any financial support will go directly to Operation Identification funds for processing, analysis, and identification.

Texas State University is a Hispanic Serving Institution and maintains a 501c3 status for charitable gifts.

Spradley, Kate. 2016. “Identifying Migrant Deaths in South Texas”. Texas State University Department of Anthropology. Posted: March 25, 2016. Available online:

No comments: