The Many Nameless Migrant Skeletons Buried Along America’s Border
Dr. Kate Spradley, an anthropologist at Texas State University, writes about her team’s mission: examining and identifying migrant skeletons found in mass graves in Texas.
As a forensic anthropologist working in Texas, I work with the nameless dead—the unidentified human remains that are the consequences of our failed immigration policy. In 1994, the Clinton administration passed immigration reform titled “Prevention Through Deterrence,” or PTD, that used checkpoints and other military tactics to funnel migrants into the harshest, most remote portions of the border. The creators of PTD knew there would be high mortality and postulated that the deaths would deter future migrants from unauthorized entry. However, both federal statistics and other studies indicate that the death toll dramatically increased after PTD, failing the policy’s main objective to deter migration. That policy is still in place today.
Nowhere is the failure of this policy more striking than in Brooks County, Texas. Brooks County has a large customs and border patrol checkpoint 70 miles north of the border that serves as a second border for entry into the United States and is the epicenter of migrant deaths in Texas. There is much to say about the harsh terrain that surrounds the checkpoint, the private land where deaths occur, the land owners who deny access to search for the dead, the county efforts to manage the dead on a tight budget, about the South Texas Human Rights Center that gives families a lifeline, and my own work on this issue. These deaths in South Texas result in the erasure of the missing person’s existence and nightmares for families of the missing.
Nothing can convey the reality of the situation in the same way as watching the new documentary Missing in Brooks County, which tells the story of the Roman family searching for their son Homero. Homero was deported to Mexico after a traffic stop, to a country he hadn’t visited in over two decades. He then attempted the dangerous journey back across the border to reunite with his family. Homero’s whereabouts are unknown since 2015 when he went missing in Brooks County. His family in Houston grieves his absence to this day. His disappearance is but one of thousands of unsolved cases that have built up over the decades.
Although federal policy impacts migration, there is no federal policy regarding death investigation and identification; rather, it relies on state and local policy. California has a regional medical examiner system, New Mexico a state system, and Arizona has a medical examiner’s office close to the border. Within these three states, unidentified human remains are taken to the medical examiner’s office where pathologists and anthropologists work toward identification and collect DNA samples in order to compare them to the DNA from families of the missing. But things are different in Texas. In the 1,200 miles of shared border between Texas and Mexico, there are but two medical examiner’s offices. Brooks County, with thousands of deaths in the past 10 years, does not have adequate resources to process and investigate these deaths. Until 2013, the county buried the dead without DNA sampling and without leaving a paper trail, rendering the dead nameless and invisible.
The situation in Texas is not much better today, and leaves only university professors like me and non-governmental organizations to lead the efforts to search for and exhume those that have been buried without the chance at identification. My team of students exhume, analyze, and submit samples to a national DNA database called CODIS (the Combined DNA Index System). CODIS is a great system and works very well for United States citizens. Transnational identifications are more difficult. If a family is outside the U.S. or not U.S. citizens, there are multiple barriers to get their DNA reference samples into CODIS. Therefore, even if DNA from unidentified human remains is submitted from a border state, there may never be an identification if there is no family DNA in the system to make a match.
There are non-governmental organizations working to collect DNA from families in Mexico and Central America. However, because there is a lack of transnational data sharing, foreign nationals—especially unauthorized migrants—present a challenge to which federal agencies are not responsive, thus unidentified migrant remains continue to fall through the cracks.
The failure to properly investigate and identify the dead at our nation’s border is a culmination of systemic failures at multiple levels, creating a humanitarian crisis. The only discussion of death in immigration policy was 26 years ago, when PTD was conceived based on the notion that it was acceptable for people to die in their attempt at a better life. There was no discussion about what to do with the dead, how to manage them, or how to identify them. The death toll must be a topic of discussion in immigration reform. If discussions are not going to include the prevention of deaths, they should at the very least discuss the need to help border states manage and identify the dead. Families of the missing want answers, and they deserve nothing less.