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“Information Overload”: Background

I’ve been away from the blog for a while, but I’ve been working in and with Brooks County since August. I learn more about the crisis every day, and I figured I would use this blogging season to share a few different components of the work we do regarding missing persons at the South Texas Human Rights Center (STHRC) and at Operation Identification at Texas State University. Trying to explain everything at once is extremely complex, so I will try and break down different steps in a series of blog posts that will follow this one.

For this post, I’ll share some background information. For the past nine months I’ve been working at the South Texas Human Rights Center as the Forensic Anthropology Fellow. Currently, I am working at Dr. Kate Spradley’s lab at Texas State University working as the coordinator of the Missing Persons Unit at Operation Identification. Despite the change in physical location, the job nearly remains the same: to facilitate the investigations of persons missing on the Texas-Mexico border.

Given the broad scope of the job, every day is different. Some days are spent completely at the computer, making phone calls and working with the inbox of my email to make sure that the right people know about people who are missing; sometimes I’m emailing a medical examiner, other times I’m on the phone with an Arizona NGO to get intricate details about the circumstances around the disappearance of someone. Other days are spent bouncing between offices, trying to figure out what works well and what needs improvement so that we can find people faster. I’ve spent some afternoons being the go-between for families who are scared to talk to law enforcement but need to find out about their loved ones. And more recently, I’ve spent a morning or afternoon with Dr. Spradley and Dr. Tim Gocha analyzing the skeletal remains of unidentified persons that were exhumed on our first two trips a few years back.

I’ve learned so much over the past nine months. I’ve seen success stories and horror stories. And if there is one pattern that I’ve recognized, it’s that success only occurs through collaboration, communication, transparency, and respect. It is my intention with my next four blog posts to show that not one part of the story is any more important than another. The volunteers who take the missing persons calls are just as important as the DNA analysts, who are just as important as the anthropologists analyzing bones and the undergraduate volunteers cleaning and organizing the clothing found with the bones. Not any single individual, organization, or agency is more important than any other.

In my next post, I will discuss Finding Missing Persons: Recent Cases and how the STHRC, in close collaboration with many organizations and agencies, saves lives of people lost in the brush, turning distress calls into rescues. Because we can’t find everyone, and because the STHRC has only been around for a few years, we are always looking for those who are still missing, and so I will then discuss Helping Families Find Their Loved Ones: Long Term Cases. The last two posts of the four-part series will touch on issues I think are not discussed enough. There are many misunderstandings about the identification process, and so I will write about the Investigations of Unidentified Persons: What is an Identification? Finally, I will end on a topic that I personally believe is the least frequently discussed yet most difficult and complex process to understand, Getting Loved Ones Home: The Long Road of Repatriation.

When we first were asked to blog about our experiences, we were told a great way to blog is to “give the reader a glimpse of how you feel and what you see”. Well, a great way to describe the past nine months would be to describe it as an “information overload”, so the next few posts will likely be just that.

Looking forward to seeing Team UIndy next week, and as always, thanks for reading!

~Ryan

The Immersion Experience

Last week we had a group visit all the way from New Zealand. They spent a week or so at the border helping in various outlets before coming to Brooks County for a day to volunteer at the South Texas Human Rights Center.

We spent the morning in conversation around the table. Eddie discussed the various roles that the STHRC plays, all while taking care to deeply engage each separate perspective so that questions could be asked and a sense of understanding could be built.  This, of course, took the entire morning but it was extremely important because it allowed all of us to examine each root with the respect that each deserved, regardless of the amount of prior knowledge of the crisis,.

At what we thought would be the end of the conversation, Eddie asked for questions, comments, or just simply what comes to mind. And I think this was one of the most exciting parts of the day, because these questions and comments were coming from those who had, in comparison to us at the STHRC, not much experience with migration in Texas. And yet, the insights they had were, in my opinion, some of the most important insights pertinent to this crisis; a reminder that it can be easy to lose sight of the forest among the trees.

“To me, what keeps coming to mind is when we visited the border the other day and we saw the fence. It just seems like if there was any kind of solution, it would be to think about where the people are coming from, and what is making them come in the first place. Because you said they are mostly fleeing violence, and are migrating simply to survive, right? It just doesn’t seem like building a fence a thousand miles away from the problem would really do what it’s built to do in the first place.”

“I was thinking about when we visited the fence, too. But to me I was just shocked that the land on both sides looked the same. In New Zealand, our border is the ocean, so obviously it’s a bit different of a scenario. Didn’t the land on both sides of the fence here used to all belong to the same people? It just seems odd to build a huge fence in land that all was the same at one point.”

Yes! Exactly! To me, these conclusions that they came up with were extremely logical. I was reminded that, while the complexities will always exist, it is important to remember the logical questions that need to ultimately be addressed.

What is the role of the fence at the border? What is its intended purpose? Does it achieve its intended purpose? If so, how? If not, why not? Who owns land? Does it belong to the people, and if so, who are they and what is their history? What was this land and this river used for before it was used solely as a border? Are these questions only to be addressed relative to the current day? Should history be considered?  Our conversation easily lasted another hour or so discussing these questions.

The group then spent the afternoon with us building a new water station that will hopefully save the lives of anyone distressed who finds the station. We experienced a glimpse of the heat, terrain, and environment that this water station was intended to combat.

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This was an immersive experience for all involved.  For the New Zealanders, they were immersed in our perspectives and complex issues as well as our environment. For us at the STHRC, we were immersed in the intrigue and insights of the New Zealanders, as well as their stories and perspectives of migration in the South Pacific Islands. But for all of us, we better understand issues through exploration of similarities and differences from other perspectives. Being here in South Texas is imperative to understanding what is happening here, and we are extremely thankful for anyone and everyone who comes to visit for any type of immersion experience.

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~Ryan

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“So, what do you do?”

Things are finally starting to take form in my brain. I’m learning my role at the STHRC, what I’m expected to do, and what gaps need to be filled. I’ve also found it difficult to answer the question “So what do you do?” to my friends and family who ask.

A quick answer to the question usually involves an extremely brief description of the humanitarian crisis happening on our border (“Wait, so kind of like what’s happening in the Mediterranean, but it’s only 6 hours away?!” Yes.) and then I explain that my role is to manage the incoming missing persons reports from families all over the world so that we can figure out how to best respond to each case. I’m also responsible for managing any and all data that is available on unidentified people that have perished in Brooks County. And then ultimately, I help create a system that allows the two sides to function efficiently so that unidentified people can be identified, providing closure for loved ones. Eddie refers to my position as a forensic investigator, and so that’s what I say I am.

But I don’t feel like that explanation really encompasses what I spend most of my time doing. In fact, it misses the skill that Eddie and Sister Pam find most important in our work; a skill, that, while emphasized to students pursuing careers in their field, is rarely fully understood by students (in my humble opinion…). That skill is building relationships. This process is often termed ‘networking’ or ‘collaborating’, but I think those terms miss the point that Eddie and Sister Pam are getting at. When Eddie and and Sister Pam network, they don’t simply mean saying “Hey, we should collaborate on this project together” through the phone or in a brief conversation after a meeting. They shake hands, call often, set up meetings with in-depth agendas, and most importantly, simply recognize each meeting as a human-to-human relationship. And so while my job description hits on this idea briefly, I feel like I spend most of my time building relationships, as part of STHRC, with so many people.

These past few weeks have been full of meetings. Some are large, some are with only a few people, but every single one is extremely meaningful and a step forward. Some are across the phone, some are across Skype, and some include simply showing up at someone’s office. But every meeting has a set agenda and has the intent of building trust and progress. We meet once a week on Skype with Derechos Humanos, a human rights group in Arizona that is focused on Search and Rescue efforts across the border. We share cases and build off of each other’s strengths and abilities. We’ve also met with Border Patrol to discuss ways to go about Search and Rescue missions, and ultimately to save lives. We continually meet with consulates, law enforcement, Justices of the Peace, and anyone else we can.

One of the best meetings I’ve ever been a part of happened yesterday while we were in McAllen with Dr. Kate Spradley. We decided to drop by a consulate’s office to introduce ourselves and let them know that we are all here to help in any way possible. We really didn’t know what to expect. The consulate quickly welcomed us in, and as soon as the meeting began, I realized how perfect a meeting this was. Eddie spoke on behalf of the families missing loved ones and was able to discuss efforts on search and rescues for people who had recently gone missing. I briefly talked about how I work with missing persons reports as well as unidentified people found on ranches. Dr. Spradley represented her lab and was able to affirm to the consulate the efforts made to identify those found on ranches. And Sister Pam, as she said, was there to provide spiritual support for all of us. Instantly, we all had each other’s trust. There we were, each one of us from a different perspective of this crisis, in McAllen, TX, in the consulate’s office to offer support and information. The consulate had so many of the same concerns we did, and was elated to know that all of the people she needed to help her with many of her issues as a consulate were sitting right there in her office, unannounced, voluntarily. These meetings can’t happen across the phone or email. This kind of trust can only be built face to face.

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Dr. Kate Spradley shows Sister Pam and I a cemetery in South Texas with the remains of unidentified individuals.

And so that’s what I do for the time being. I meet with people in person as much as possible with Eddie and Sister Pam. I email and call people from all over the country, trying to find ways to create a better system (it can always be better). I set up times to meet with people in person to have real discussions. And ultimately, as Eddie and Sister Pam put it, I build relationships and trust with people.

~Ryan

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