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Image of the Beyond Borders team members in Eagle Pass, TX

We Decide What to Do With the Time That is Given Us

The field of forensic anthropology has grown due to disasters. While most of forensic anthropology practice occurs on single death cases, it’s the disasters that have brought attention to and interest in the field out of the need for it to grow. Genocide and mass graves in Eastern Europe and Latin America first warranted the training of large teams of forensic anthropologists. The September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, aircraft crashes, large fires in the western US and the prolonged mass disaster along the US-Mexico border have drawn students to the field. Once each disaster is addressed we wonder if the field will be saturated with practitioners, but there’s always another disaster. Some of them are sudden, unexpected and relatively short in terms of investigation. While others are prolonged in terms of deaths and investigations.

Team members exhuming a grave in Eagle Pass with Deputy White in the background.
Exhumations in Eagle Pass

With all mass disasters we ask “why” and “how” this could possibly happen. With the US-Mexico border crisis these questions have lingered for decades with no response. Addressing immigration policy or the global circumstances that have created the mass migration event are often out of the hands of the forensic scientists, but we can address questions of and advocate for policies that focus on the forensic investigations and analyses. For decades I’ve watched colleagues in Arizona and Texas work to find creative ways to address the large volume of migrant deaths with little state provided resources. My colleagues in Texas are not paid to do this work, they have chosen to devote their time and resources to locating, identifying and repatriating those who died crossing the border.

Two team members removing dirt from a burial with shovels.
Removing loose dirt from above the burials in Eagle Pass

What I have always struggled with, second to the fact that a large number of deaths occur on our border in the first place, is the lack of support for this work. There are always family members and friends that vocally display their lack of support for the volunteers working in the Texas borderlands. Their opposition is usually politically driven and narrowly focused.  We decide what to do with the time given us. For my colleagues it means dedicating themselves to this work daily. For the Beyond Borders Team it means shorter bursts of intensive work and immersion in this crisis.  The students learn practical forensic skills that will prepare them for a future in the field. They are being provided with an opportunity to grow and expand their skills, which should be celebrated. Yet that is often overshadowed by the context in which they are working. Every member of the Beyond Borders team has chosen to spend their time working on this large-scale identification project. They have chosen to work towards providing closure to families of the deceased and have chosen to put themselves in often uncomfortable and difficult situations in order to grow as professionals and as people.

Three team members measuring the location of a grave marker to create a map.
Mapping in Eagle Pass

We decide what to do with the time given us. We can decide to be positive and work towards positive change, we can do nothing or we can work against it.  More and more often I find myself worrying about the physical and mental health of my closest colleagues working regularly at the border. With what I experience after just short trips, I can’t begin to imagine how they feel with the daily weight of this work. So, if you see a smile out of place in our work photos, do not misinterpret it as making light of the situation. It’s usually a smile at someone we admire, a smile at someone we are happy to see, a smile at someone we are watching grow or just a smile that helps us get though whatever difficult situation we are facing at the moment.  If you have a forensic scientist or last responder in your life, take a moment to check in on them. You have no idea what they see, hear and experience on a daily basis. Whether you agree with the context of their work or not, they are choosing to make a positive contribution to society regardless of the emotional and physical toll it might take on them.

Two team members removing dirt from a burial with a shovel and mattock.
Breaking up the hard top soil in Eagle Pass

The purpose of this blog is to bring awareness to the situation in the Texas borderlands through the perspective of the forensic scientists working there. We try to provide you an insight you will not get from watching or reading the news. While there are so many challenging, difficult and disheartening things I could focus on in my reflections of our time at the border, I always try to highlight something positive.  I am so incredibly proud of the hard work and growth I witnessed in all the students at the cemetery during this trip to Eagle Pass. It was physically challenging and emotionally difficult yet they started and ended each day with professionalism and motivation, learned to work as a team, witnessed the complexity of a crisis with no end in sight, and chose to spend their time serving others in a time of crisis and disaster.

Returning & Reflections

Two team members setting up the datum
Establishing our datum

Our trip to Eagle Pass felt like it was over just as quickly as it started. It was so good to see Don, Eddie, and Dr. Spradley again. This was my first real forensic archaeology experience with manually excavating and exhuming burials. There were distinct moments during this trip when I’d be working, sit back, and think “Wow, I have learned so much today.” and each day that feeling only grew stronger. I noticed during the later days of the week how much the team had grown together and were able to work as a cohesive unit. We became so skilled with a trowel that, when we left, our hands stayed formed to holding a trowel (dubbed trowel claw). It was also a new experience to learn how to do this work with the media present. It was a bit daunting, but it did not deter our work ethic.

In my pre-trip post, I said we read about what we may encounter but nothing could truly prepare us for what we’d see and learn, and I can confidently say I was right about that. While providing forensic anthropology in Indiana, there is a lot we are removed from, especially in regards to the border crisis. I have never dealt with death at this scale. In our last debrief, I discussed how many more layers of the forensic anthropology field and the border crisis this trip has exposed me to. It has caused me to recognize and connect these different levels of our work that previously felt disjointed. We work with the individuals brought to our lab under many different circumstances. We have searched the Texas Borderlands and seen evidence of migrant travel, ranging from food wrappers to clothing items, leaving me constantly thinking of where these individuals are and if they are okay. We searched for burials and found individuals discarded alongside miscellaneous trash. We examined the personal belongings of these individuals and their bodies for identifying characteristics. This, especially, is something I am not used to as I am more familiar with analyzing mostly skeletal remains. It can feel invasive to do some of these things, but its to be able to give these individuals their best chance at getting home to their families. I saw their IDs and what they looked like to their loved ones. I heard the family member of one of the individuals previously exhumed speak about their loved one they lost and a bit of their background. To hear them say “I was waiting for them to tell me he opened his eyes, to tell me he’d take another breath.” It’s heart wrenching. So many people are sharing this experience, and so many people don’t even know what is happening besides what is being shown on the news.

View of the Rio Grande
Rio Grande

This work is heavy. These are hard things to have on your mind and definitely aren’t things that will fade. These trips allow us to meet some of the individuals working often daily with this border crisis, ranging from activists groups and media to cemetery workers and forensic scientists. Regardless of the motivation or background, each person I met has the same goal, to do the best we can to care for these individuals, and that is one great piece of solace, knowing there are more people out there who care. No one deserves to be treated in the manner we found these individuals in. No one deserves to have to experience the treacherous journey these individuals endured. Each trip reveals so much that we don’t know is going on or don’t know the severity of it.

The team taking measurements at the cemetery
Team taking measurements

Annnnnd now I am back home. Preparing for school to start, and It feels like the most extreme 360. I very naively thought that after two trips to Texas my transition back to normal life in Indiana would be easier, and I was very wrong. This trip was such an eye-opening experience for me. I learned SO much in such a short period of time skill wise and even more so about the border crisis. I get to share my experience and help others understand what really is going on. It is a privilege to be able to do so. I am extremely grateful to Dr. Latham for allowing me to be a part of this team and this project. The lessons I learn from these trips, personal and skill-wise, are exceptional, and I am proud to have been a part of the team and the work we’ve done.


Jan 2023 Team

Looking Back

We’ve been home for a couple of days now, but I feel restless. I want to go back and continue working. Knowing there are migrants needing to be identified and families anxiously awaiting news on their loved ones while I sit on my couch and binge Netflix doesn’t seem right. While I’ve recovered physically, my emotions are still all over the place. It is hard to rationalize why society has gotten to a point where we treat and judge people based on nothing beyond the fact they were not born in the same place as us.

Team members taking measurements at the cemetery

This Beyond Borders trip was vastly different from the previous ones I have been on. There was a different emotional toll than that experienced when we search ranchland or fill water stations. Not to say that either of those activities is easy or enjoyable, but seeing the bodies of migrants tossed in hastily dug holes like trash, and oftentimes with actual trash, hits in a different way. It doesn’t take much to have even the smallest bit of compassion or human decency, yet these migrants are looked down upon and treated appallingly for the simple reason of being born in a different country or to circumstances beyond their control. It frustrates and saddens me and makes me question a lot of things.

Team members digging at the cemetery

It is easy to villainize one person or another for the crisis, but, unfortunately, there is no easy solution and there is no single person to blame for what is occurring. There are many differing opinions and political discourses surrounding immigration and the US/Mexico border, but that will not stop migrants from crossing, with some perishing along the way. Funeral homes and cemetery workers are overwhelmed by the sheer number of migrants they end up in charge of. They are doing their best, but, at some point, they start to become desensitized to the atrocities they are seeing. This does not excuse what is happening to these migrants, but it is important to realize that this is a multi-faceted, complex problem with no simple solution.

Two team members removing dirt from a burial

As long as there are people such as Dr. Latham, Eddie, Don, Dr. Spradley and the Operation Identification team, and many other individuals and organizations who are taking the initiative and trying their best to give migrants and their families closure, I choose to believe that compassion and decency still exist. I wish we were never even needed down in Eagle Pass, but I am glad we were able to aid in the excavations and, hopefully, help provide some of the dignity and compassion these migrants, and all humans, are worthy of.

Working on this project with this team was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I am thankful for the opportunity to be a part of it. After my experiences with Beyond Borders, I am only more determined to use my education and abilities in humanitarian settings in order to help those who have been wronged in any way I can. I’m sad that this is most likely my last trip with Beyond Borders, but I’ve cherished every moment.

~ Olivia

Jan 2023 Team