With Gratitude

The Beyond Borders trip was a learning opportunity on many fronts. Observing and participating in this interdisciplinary effort to address the crisis of mass death at the US-Mexico border was, at once, fascinating, heartbreaking, and encouraging. The conditions of poverty, violence, and structural inequality fueling this problem are undeniably complex and have been fairly well documented by academic scholars, investigative journalists, and human rights organizations. Less well documented are on-the-ground efforts aimed at alleviating migrant vulnerability and invisibility of perished migrants and families whose loved ones have gone missing in US borderlands. I have long been fascinated by how non-governmental organizations and the state define and address the needs of the most vulnerable among us. And, working with the UIndy forensic science team has afforded me the opportunity to learn about the different facets of migrant death response in south Texas. What I witnessed was, in part, a moment within a broader process of developing advocacy networks and forging professional alliances between folks with very different skill sets and expertise. This interdisciplinary effort will, no doubt, continue to evolve in response to the very specific conditions of state (non)response to this pressing set of concerns. There is much to be learned from how those on the front line continue to navigate the sociopolitical dynamics of mass death at the boundaries of the state.

I am particularly grateful for the chance to have learned about the (relatively recent) history of the crisis in Brooks County from those working on the front lines as forensic experts, law enforcement, and advocates for coordinated state response. I am also very grateful to have learned from local human rights activists and social justice warriors who work tirelessly to build justice at the border by extending compassion, building alliances, and demanding the realization of rights for migrants and their families. And, of course, the UIndy team extended to me an amazing opportunity to learn about processes and techniques of identification; from skeletal analysis and processing of personal affects to the ins-and-outs of missing persons database registry, UIndy team members were patient and gracious hosts. I am indebted to all those who shared with me, however briefly, their time, knowledge, and expertise.

At the end of the trip, I’ve taken what amounts to a “crash course” in conditions of perished migrant identification and repatriation. The lessons I learned about the complexities of migrants’ routes and the structural and physical conditions of their deaths were uncomfortable and disquieting; death at the border is as tragic as it is needless. The lessons I learned about efforts to alleviate the suffering of families missing loved ones and migrants en route, however, offered incredible testament to the difference we can make when we apply the tools of our varied disciplines in service of social problems and in the spirit of collaboration.

Dr Alyson O’Daniel

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Forensic Archeology
Forensic Archeology

As I reflect back upon our trip to Texas this year I keep returning to the statement “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” We started working in Brooks County in 2013 when we were invited to assist with the exhumations in Sacred Heart Burial Park.  We worked hard and provided an important contribution to the work being started there.  As we moved on to supervise the exhumations the following year, conduct skeletal analyses, navigate the identification system and interact with the community, we became more deeply embedded in the issues and more aware of the extent and complexities of the humanitarian crisis on our border.

After being away from my son for almost two weeks, he asked if we could have a special day together and go see the movie “Captain America: Civil War.” The movie focuses on the Avengers, a group of superheros tasked with doing “good” for humans across the planet. Up until this point the heroes operated as their own independent entity. In this episode, the heroes are required to accept accountability for their actions by entering into a political agreement with the United Nations that requires them to follow specific ordinances and governances. This divides the Avengers team with some of them wanting to continue their humanitarian efforts without governmental interference and others accepting of the oversight. The end result is two groups of heroes working for “good” from different perspectives.  Throughout the movie I kept thinking of the efforts in South Texas to save the living and identify then repatriate the dead.

Building Water Stations
Building Water Stations

There are many governmental and non-governmental organizations working on these efforts, and everyone is coming from a place where they feel they are doing the most “good”.   Some of these individuals are bound by rules and standard operating procedures. They are functioning within the law. This means that they have greater access and resources due to their governmental standing but also less freedom to quickly change and adapt to different circumstances.  These rules and guidelines are an important part of standardization of approach and process within the medicolegal system.  Other organizations are operating outside of the law. This does not mean they are doing anything illegal. It means they are not restricted by the same rules as the governmental agencies. They have more restricted access and resources, but they also have more freedoms. They can modify their policies and adapt to new and unforeseen circumstances. I do not see either of these approaches as better than the other as each operates differently in different situations.  But, in order to make progress regarding the crisis on the border these groups do need to work together.  We need to remember our common goal of dignity in life and in death, and not let our different approaches distract as. As in the movie “United we stand, divided we fall”.

Migrant Deaths in South TX
Migrant Deaths in South TX

Forensic anthropologists working on the border are part of a team of people working from different perspectives to do “good”.  There are certain resources and permissions that we need from those working within the law since most of us are not employed by any governmental entity. There are also certain freedoms and flexibilities that we enjoy by working outside the law. At times we want that accountability and at times we are thankful for our independence.

By comparing those working on border issues to The Avengers, am I calling them heroes? From those that save lives through search and rescue or maintaining water stations, to those who lighten the spirit through a warm meal or the gift of hospitality, to those that identify and repatriate the deceased to a family that needs closure, to those struggling to change policy  – By touching one heart or saving one life, yes I think they are heroes to someone.


Lost, But Not Forgotten

What We Leave, and What We Take

Travelling to Texas over the past few summers is always challenging.  We usually try and pack in as much as humanly possible.  This applies not only to our luggage, but also our time in the Lone Star state.  Every day is crammed full of experiences to ensure that no second of time is wasted.  This year we completed 17 skeletal analyses (alongside the fine people of Texas State University), participated in “Missing in Harris County Day”, and even managed to have a little extra time to construct and fill water stations in Brooks County.

My beautiful wife, Jessica.

Every time I travel I cannot help but think about what I’m taking and what I’m leaving behind.  Leaving Indianapolis, my first instinct is to pour over the trivial things… like did I bring underwear? or how much deodorant do I need for 10 days?  Those thoughts soon give way to the more meaningful.  The first and most important thing I leave behind every time I visit Texas is my beautiful wife.  Everyone who knows me will tell you that I’m not always the easiest person to get along with.  Jessica and I have been married for nearly 9 years now, which places her level of patience and understanding on par with saints.  It may seem silly, but I always feel like part of her is with me on my journey.  She understands that the work we do is meaningful and important, and I could not do it without her support.

Watson is on the case.
Watson is on the case.

I left something new at home this year… This 3-year-old basset hound mix Jessica and I adopted from the Indianapolis Humane Society.  We changed his name to Watson, a fitting name for an intelligent and loyal side kick.  He has already become a member of our family, and I look forward to our future lives together.

The last thing I left in Indianapolis was my case knife.  I forgot that it was in my jacket pocket before the TSA security checkpoint.  It may sound trivial, but I loved that knife.  I am also glad that the TSA is doing their job so well.  I hope you enjoy my knife (although I suggest you clean it before using it).

The things that I take and leave from Texas are much more ephemeral.  If I had to choose one material thing to take back to Indy, it would be HEB grocery stores (sorry, everything else, its’s HEB!).  Alas, like most of the wonderful people and places in Texas, I am forced to leave them all behind.  I leave behind friends who treated us like family.  I leave behind families still searching for loved ones.  I also leave behind an amazing group of individuals that continue to fight for human rights, and aid in the identification of the missing.  People like the wonderful faculty and students of Texas State, and Eddie Canalez and Ryan Strand of the South Texas Human Rights Center show us what we can accomplish if our hearts and minds are in the right place.

I hope that I have taken part of that fight with me.  Although it seems that we are thousands of miles away from issues on the border, these issues permeate our entire country.  Even with this perceived separation, it is how we act now that that will that will continue to shape our great country.  Our country was founded on the magnanimous ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  I believe that everyone should have access, after all, todos somos inmigrantes (we are all immigrants).