With her daughter missing, Dalila can’t give up hope.
“Sometimes I think … I’m going to find her alive, somewhere, where she might be recovering. A hospital, a shelter.”
Dalila, who lives in Oregon and works as a cleaner, asked that her last name be withheld for safety reasons. She came to the US on a visa nine years ago from El Salvador. In late 2013, Dalila paid a man $3,500 to take her 24-year-old daughter from El Salvador to the US, with the promise to pay another $3,500 when her daughter arrived.
Mother and daughter were never reunited. On Dec. 26, 2013, Dalila’s daughter sent her a text message saying she was about to start walking from McAllen, Texas, to Houston.
Thoughts of what might have happened to her daughter during that 350-mile journey haunt Dalila: “That is what keeps me up at night; that is what is most painful about it all – that I imagine my daughter crying, asking for help.”
Nearly 6,000 people have died crossing the southern border into the US since 1998, according to reports from the US Border Patrol. Violence and poverty in Mexico and Central America push migrants to leave, while family ties and economic opportunities pull them to the US
Many don’t survive the journey. So many bodies have been found – in deserts, rivers and on ranchlands – that local authorities have struggled to deal with the remains.
In southern Arizona, cemetery space used to bury the unidentified filled up, so legislators changed a law so that unidentified remains could be cremated. The morgue at the Pima County, Ariz., medical examiner’s office was expanded to accommodate the need.
The number of people who’ve died while crossing into Arizona went down in 2014, but human rights groups say the flow of migrants is being funneled into Texas, where the border area comprises about 30 poor, rural counties, like Brooks County (pop. 7,223).
In June, forensic anthropologists working in Brooks County discovered the unidentified remains of migrants buried in mass graves in the Sacred Heart cemetery.
Some of the remains were comingled and bones were found in shopping bags and trash bags, according to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.
Such revelations spurred changes in how Brooks County handles unidentified remains, but they also cast light on the magnitude of migrant deaths and disappearances.
If hundreds of people perished in plane crashes in the desert, it would make headlines and garner federal support, said Robin Reineke, founder of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights in Tucson, Ariz.
“In other disasters, there is a disaster response agency where people will come in and manage things,” she said.
Show of Force
Fernando Garcia, executive director of Border Network for Human Rights, said the migrant-deaths disaster is the product of US government efforts to “seal” the border between Mexico and the US
The first of those efforts, Operation Hold the Line, began in El Paso in 1993. By concentrating agents and technology in urban areas, the Border Patrol created a “show of force” to deter people from crossing the border illegally. The approach was expanded in 1994 to San Diego under the name Operation Gatekeeper.
Citing a decline in the number of apprehensions, Border Patrol called deterrence a success.
But human rights groups say people continued to cross into the US, taking riskier routes and paying smugglers to help them.
“Actually the numbers of people crossing into the deserts, the mountains, they were not deterred,” Garcia said. “What you saw was people dying.”
Deaths increased almost immediately following increased border fortification, according to a 2014 report published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The causes of deaths changed, too. After Gatekeeper was put into operation, for example, migrant deaths by drowning and exposure rose significantly at the California-Mexico border, the report said.
Prior to border fortification, migrant deaths were occasional and circumstantial, Garcia said. These days, they’re commonplace. When a body is found in the Rio Grande, “It’s like, OK, there’s another floater in the river.”
The death of thousands of migrants is met with apathy, Garcia said.
“If you had that many Canadians – White people – dying, this would be a different story.”
Dalila wants to put an end to the waiting and wondering. She made a missing-person report to Colibrí Center for Human Rights in hopes of finding out what happened to her daughter.
“Whatever it is, alive or dead, I want to be done with this,” she said.
Colibrí founder Robin Reineke is among a coalition of scientists, students and human rights activists working to collect better data from the remains of unidentified border crossers so that they can be positively matched with those reported missing.
Reineke and her colleagues have made 100 positive identifications from remains since 2006.
That leaves about 900 other John and Jane Does found in Arizona alone. Funerals will not be held for them; their families will likely never be notified.
“They have been made invisible many times,” Reineke said.
Clock Is Ticking
When an undocumented migrant dies trying to cross the US-Mexico border, the clock begins ticking. If the body is found before it has decomposed or been eaten by animals, investigators can determine the person’s weight and find scars or tattoos that might aid in identification. There’s also a better chance that clothing and personal items will be found.
“What we have to go on is pretty much in direct proportion to the condition of the remains when they were found,” said Pima County Medical Examiner Gregory Hess.
Despite its relatively small population of 6.6 million, Arizona ranks third in the US, behind California and New York, for number of unidentified remains.
In 2010, the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office saw a spike in the number of unidentified remains coming in. And, with that spike, came people searching for loved ones.
“We get families who show up in the parking lot,” Hess said.
The families had come to the wrong agency to file a missing-person report.
“It’s not like you could search those parameters in the records we use to house our cases. It’s not made for that,” Hess said.
At that time, Reineke was a graduate student working with University of Arizona anthropologist Bruce Anderson to centralize missing-migrant data from southern Arizona. She collected data from consulates – including paper records – and took reports from families.
“The breakdown of the case is most of the families of missing migrants can’t go to police, either because they are afraid of getting reported or because they are in Mexico or Central America,” she said.
Sometimes, the family will choose a delegate who is bilingual or has secure legal status in the US to make the report.
“Other times,” she said, “we can sense the person [making the report] is terrified.”
Colibrí, a nonprofit that grew out of this work, receives as many as 60 reports from families each week and also collects missing-person reports from consulates, nonprofits, journalists and BORSTAR, the Border Patrol’s search-and-rescue unit.
“We’re really just trying to be a clearinghouse of all this data so medical examiners across the border will have an easy list,” Reineke said.
Little is easy about determining migrants’ identities. In 2008, the body of a young woman was brought in to the Pima County ME’s office. Found with the body was an ID card, and the face of the woman matched the photo on the ID, which also had a name. Despite all this, Reineke was unable to locate the woman’s family.
“Sometimes it’s just a matter of the data not being comprehensive,” she said.
On one hand is the information collected from the remains. On the other, is missing-person information. One or the other – or both – may be missing or incomplete.
Family members may not file a missing-person report because they are estranged from the relative, involved in the drug trade or too scared, because of their own undocumented status, to make a report.
Information about the remains of unidentified bodies is often inconsistent, since there is no universal protocol on how an unidentified body is handled.
“The way death investigations work is very fragmented. Who is doing this [DNA sampling] depends on where you live,” Hess said.
Pima County takes DNA samples from all unidentified remains, but, as Hess points out, “a physical DNA sample can be useful only insofar as there are other samples with which to compare it.”
In the US, databases of DNA are linked to law enforcement. CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System, is managed by the FBI.
It contains DNA profiles of people who have been arrested, convicted offenders, and family members of missing persons.
Hess and his colleagues sometimes take DNA from unidentified remains and enter the information into CODIS.
“Sometimes that comes back as a hit,” he said. “But then again, do we know the name is a real name, or something that they made up?”
Investigators can also take fingerprints and send them to the Border Patrol, but even a match there can be inconclusive as border crossers often use false identities and addresses.
Dental records are likewise unhelpful because the population of border crosses often has had little access to dental care.
“A Mass Disaster”
Kate Spradley knows all too well the challenges of unidentified remains. A forensic anthropologist at Texas State University, she is conducting an analysis of the remains of 65 unidentified border crossers exhumed from Brooks County’s Sacred Heart cemetery.
The project, she said, is “a mass disaster that was dropped off at our lab.”
Texas state law requires DNA sampling of all unidentified remains, but the law, Spradley said, is rarely enforced.
Texas has 254 counties, only 13 of which have medical examiners, and those examiners serve only their own counties, Spradley said. There are three medical examiners in the border area. An autopsy of unidentified remains costs about $1,500, plus another $1,500 for transport.
“They don’t have the resources to process those deaths,” Spradley said of border counties.
As a result, no one knows for sure how many unidentified border crossers are buried in Texas cemeteries.
“I think whatever number is out there is very much an underestimation,” Spradley said.