On the first day we arrived at the South Texas Human Rights Center at the same time as Eddie and Deputy Don. Eddie unlocked the center and rearranged to get enough chairs at the table in the middle of the front room and then his phone rang. “I have to get this”, he said and walked to the back room. He was gone for just a few minutes. As he walked back into the front room he said “This is the year of the widow/widower maker. Every call is from a wife with her children in the US already or a husband with his children in the US already. They came first, are waiting on their spouse to arrive and lost contact.” He explained that this woman lost contact with her husband last week and his last known location was Brooks County. Eddie’s first step was to see if he had been detained and is being held somewhere. This man had not been apprehended so Eddie had to tell her that her husband is officially missing. “She is devastated”, he said. “I could tell she was devastated and it will just get worse as it sinks in. I told her she has to get more information before we can go search for him. We need to know more about his location.” Calls like these come in daily and are just part of Eddie’s many responsibilities as the Director of the South Texas Human Rights Center.
We discovered a backpack partially buried in the sand while on one of our searches. Inside were several items that had been protected from the environment because there were wrapped in plastic bags: socks, a hat and a blanket. Brooks County Sheriffs Department Deputy Don White carefully laid the pair of new socks on a tree branch saying “These are really nice. I’m going to put them here so someone who needs them will see them.” He repeated this for the other items in the bag. Deputy White volunteers to do this once a month with the Texas National guard. In addition to his duties as a Brooks County Deputy Sheriff (which is also volunteer as the county cannot pay for a large department) and his work in security and traffic that pays the bills, Don walks the brush in Brooks county looking for people in distress, human remains and personal items that might tell the story of where to find someone who is reported missing.
These two volunteer countless hours to finding people in distress, preventing deaths and saving lives. The Beyond Borders team extends its gratitude to them for educating us on these issues and allowing us to assist them in their efforts. We have learned so much in our short time there and experienced things that will change us forever. One of the easiest way you can contribute to this crisis is to educate yourself on the truth regarding what is happening at the US-Mexico border and bring awareness to this crisis.
Article 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” If you look up the definition of Human Rights it reads: “Human rights are moral principles or norms that describe certain standards of human behavior, and are regularly protected as natural and legal rights in municipal and international law. They are commonly understood as inalienable fundamental rights “to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being”, and which are “inherent in all human beings” regardless of their nation, location, language, religion, ethnic origin or any other status.” Therefore it is our moral and legal obligation to treat all people with dignity and respect.
Social Justice is based on the concepts of human rights and equality, and can be defined as “the way in which human rights are manifested in the everyday lives of people at every level of society”. While this term and practice is quite old, it gained momentum in the early to mid-1800s with religious groups. The concept has morphed over time, however, modern practice still embodies: the protection of human dignity, actions to promote equal opportunities for everyone and holding the State accountable for the distribution of vital means.
For five years the Beyond Borders Team has operated to promote these concepts and has argued that these dignities extend beyond the life of an individual. That humans should be treated with dignity in life and dignity in death. We will continue to hold strong to these values, even at a time when those who work to protect Human Rights and fight for Social Justice are characterized as weak, annoying, offensive and unpatriotic, among many other derogatory words.
I am very proud of all the students who have volunteered to participate in this humanitarian mission over the last five years. They are some of the strongest and most compassionate people I know. They embody the words of Lady Liberty, treat others the way they would want to be treated and are part of the generation that will make this world a better place. They are facing their own fears and volunteering to put themselves in the middle of a harsh environment that has claimed the lives of so many others. And while I know these missions are not about them, I do know what they experience in the Texas Borderlands changes them in ways they never imagined. To me that is progress. Change requires compassion, empathy and a drive to do what is right for all people regardless of their biology, cultural beliefs or economic circumstances.
The UIndy Beyond Borders Team has been participating in this large scale migrant identification initiative for 5 years now. Five years. Five field seasons. Three counties. Nearly 200 exhumations. As you have already read in previous posts: each cemetery presents its own unique challenges to locating and excavating the burials and each country provides a unique setting in which we would find ourselves challenged and learning more about the complicated humanitarian crisis unfolding at the border.
With each field season we have learned to be flexible, to problem solve, to apply our archeological skills in new ways and to expect the unexpected. We have learned the value of planning and teamwork, the type of motivation that can only come with a passion to do what is right and just, and the hope that our hard work will benefit someone who is longing for answers. We have learned to push through the pain of bruises, blisters, muscle aches and sun burns. To let our head coach us to believe we are not physically aching, tired and heartbroken because we cannot slow down until our job is complete. We have made lifelong friendships and we have learned things about life and humanity that only others embarking on a similar mission can fully grasp. We have seen the best and we have seen the worst of humanity in action.
We have learned that our early understanding of this issue was naive and the issues are so deep are so complicated that it is difficult to truly grasp what is happening and why it is happening. We have learned that while we can be advocates, we can never truly understand these issues because of our nationality and privilege. But we can listen, we can contribute our skills and we can use our platform to educate and inform those who have no idea that thousands of people are dying and being buried in the southern US borderlands. As forensic scientists we are able to tell stories and document inequalities that may otherwise go unheard and unnoticed by the vast majority of Americans. We see the imprints of lifelong poverty on the bones and teeth of the dead we uncover, we see the love they have for their families in the photos and notes found in their pockets, we document the places they die and bear witness to the fact that these deaths are happening in staggering numbers. We not only work to give them a name and restore their memory but we make them a part of the indelible medicolegal record that will one day work towards change and social justice.
As another field season comes to an end I again find it difficult to express my feelings. On the one hand I want to say how proud I am of my team and the entire field team in general. I want to feel pride in our work and comfort in that fact that 37 more people now have a chance at identification and repatriation. But on the other hand these feeling seem so inappropriate within such a large and violent crisis. It is a humbling experience and it is eye opening and shocking to see how these migrants are viewed and treated in life and in death. We thank you for following our journey, which is intimately entwined with the journey of those we unearth. We hope you learn, you feel and you share what is happening.
Please let us know if there is something you want to see on the blog in the future and please support our continued work if you have the ability to do so.