Forensic anthropologists not only have a specific set of scientific skills (forensic archeology and expertise in the human skeleton) and experience navigating the medicolegal system that allow us to play a vital role in the investigation of migrant deaths along the border, but as broadly trained anthropologists we are also able to approach this work in a culturally sensitive and appropriate way. We utilize the controlled and systematic approach of traditional archeological technique to recover the individuals from the cemetery while preserving the context of the burial information. We are able to analyze the skeletons and assess the living characteristics of each person (like how old they were when they died, were they male or female, how tall were they, etc…). We know that each person represents an open forensic case and approach this work in a way that preserves the chain of custody and produces proper documentation to allow for an investigation into personal identity.
As anthropologists we understand that while we serve an important practical role in the identification of the migrants, we are also situated within a very large and complex set of realities occurring not only in the Texas borderlands but also globally. Locally we must consider the various stakeholders impacted by this process. This includes the families of the missing, law enforcement, as well as the local community members (among others). Since the beginning of this project we have considered the feelings of the families of the missing. We have worked to treat the dead with respect and dignity as we work towards their identification. We are transparent with our findings and provide families of the identified with copies of the field recovery reports that pertain to their loved one as well as copies of the scientific reports, along with an explanation of what they mean and how that lead to an identification. Invitations for us to work on these identifications come from the local medicolegal community, so our interactions with these stakeholders has been extensive. What we have learned over the years is that the law enforcement community must find ways to balance their resources, focuses and efforts between the living and the dead. They have a community to serve and protect, lives to save when distress calls come from the dessert and bodies to recover. As the number of bodies has increased dramatically over the last few years they have struggled to continue that balance as resources have not similarly increased. While we are mindful of how we are working within a broader system and we can begin to use this awareness to guide our work, we are aware that we are only beginning to recognize how we fit into this sociopolitical landscape and that we currently have more questions than answers.
As we move into a new community it is especially important to consider how we are directly and indirectly impacting the community of Rio Grande City with this work. We must understand that the community, as a border town, has been entangled historically in migration issues that are shaped by larger forces of economic globalization, racial division, and various forms of privilege and disadvantage. At each step of the planning and excavation process we must continue to ask ourselves how we are influencing the community from the larger and more long lasting impacts to the daily interactions and encounters at the cemetery and in the town along the way.
Today was our second full day at the Osteology Research and Processing Laboratory (ORPL) conducting skeletal analyses. Our first four cases were individuals the UIndy team exhumed from Sacred Heart Burial Park when we were there doing exhumations in January. It is especially motivating for us to be able to follow these individuals from the exhumation to the analysis phase of the forensic investigation. Once the skeletal analysis is complete a forensic anthropology report is composed to outline the decedent’s living characteristics, such as an estimation of their age at death, how tall they were in life and a determination of whether they were male or female (among other things). Once the forensic anthropology report is complete, a sample can be submitted for the generation of a DNA profile. The DNA information is then compared to DNA profiles in a database that were submitted by family members of missing persons. If there is a profile that is similar, the information about the missing person is then compared to the information in the forensic anthropology report as well as other documents that might have important information about the unidentified person, such as when and where the body was found. If there are no major inconsistencies between all the various pieces of data, then a personal identification can be made. It is not an easy or a fast process. But the sooner the skeletal analysis occurs, the sooner they will enter this process and hopefully be identified and returned to their loved ones.
Today the UIndy team hit their groove. There was no stumbling over the various steps in the process or waiting on others to complete steps before others could be conducted. While two people were taking measurements, two others were analyzing non-metric traits and one was taking photos. It was a pleasure as a teacher to watch them find their confidence, work well as a team and help each other along the way. While our team was working on cases, there was a team from Texas State lead by Dr. Tim Gocha that was working on cases as well. The goal is to get as many of the 20 cases that are processed and ready for analysis completed by the two teams in three days. Also at ORPL this week is UIndy alum Caitlin (posing with us in our Day 2 photo). It’s great to see how well she’s doing since graduating from the UIndy Human Biology Program. Tomorrow is our last day of skeletal analyses. We plan to get there early and hit the ground running so that our last day is the most productive day yet.
On May 16 the UIndy Forensics Team will once again head south to work with colleagues at Texas State University on a large scale migrant identification initiative. While we have been involved in these efforts since 2013, this mission bears some pretty dramatic changes for our team. Each mission has been different in its own right and we have come to embrace the motto “Expect the Unexpected”, but there are changes that warrant mentioning before we depart.
1 – For the first time we will be conducting skeletal analyses and exhumations in one trip. Our prior missions have focused on one or the other: exhumations at Sacred Heart Burial Park in Brooks County or skeletal analyses at Texas State University. Both activities are intense and exhausting in their own way. Conducting multiple skeletal analyses per day requires mental stamina, as one wandering thought or eye can cause the analyst to miss an important detail or feature that could be potentially important in the identification efforts. Cemetery excavations are physically exhausting and bring the added dangers of environmental exposure (heat, dehydration, bugs, etc…) or injury. I have always been proud of the dedication of the UIndy student volunteers and am especially proud of this team, who didn’t hesitate when I explained the demands that this mission entails. Each member sees the contribution they can make in this crisis situation as the most important deciding factor in their decision to embark on this trip.
2 – We will be moving our exhumation efforts to a different county. Since 2013 our focus has been on the identification of migrants who perished in Brooks County Texas, and were buried without a forensic investigation into their identity. However, Brooks is only one of many counties facing a similar crisis situation. The excavations on this trip will occur in Starr County Texas. We are humbled that we were invited by our colleagues at Texas State University to participate in this expanding identification effort and are eager to begin this new phase of the project. However, we will miss the familiar places and the familiar faces of our friends in Falfurrias.
3 – Our veteran team member Justin has retired. Justin has participated in the entirety of every field mission since 2013. He has been our muscles when we needed strength in the field. He has been our senior analyst when we needed brains in the lab. He has been our shoulder when we needed to cry, and an outstretched hand when we needed support. He has been our translator when we needed a Spanish speaker, our nature
conservationist when we needed bugs, snakes, frogs and other critters relocated from our excavation spots, and our chef when we were hungry. He has been our comic relief when we needed a reason to smile and our motivational speaker when we needed a reason to not give up. He has been an invaluable part of the UIndy efforts towards migrant identification and I want to make sure that his decision year after year to put his heart and soul into this work does not go unnoticed. We will miss Justin, but wish him the best as he enters the next phase of his educational career in Forensic Anthropology: starting work on his doctorate.
The team for this mission consists of Leann, Erica, Jessica and Haley. Please continue to check back daily for updates on our work and progress regarding the entire initiative in general. Thank you for your support and please feel free to share this information to bring awareness to this humanitarian crisis situation.