Finding Missing Persons: Recent Cases

For this post, I will focus on some of the more recent challenges at the South Texas Human Rights Center. Most of the work done at the center in the past focused on identifying those who lost their lives in Brooks County. Legislation was pushed to allow death certificates of the unidentified to become public record so that investigations could be made into the deaths of these individuals. Processes in Brooks County changed to make the system more efficient and effective at identifying the unknown. Collaborations were formed with other agencies and non-government organizations so that more information about those who went missing could be shared, ultimately assisting families and agencies investigating disappearances find their loved ones.

More recently, however, the South Texas Human Rights Center has played a major role in locating those who go missing within the past few days. We’ve had several success stories within the past few months where those who went missing are found alive, taken to hospitals, and ultimately reunited with their worried family members. It’s always a difficult situation, but we’re proud to live up to one of our goals: save migrant lives.

Looking for missing people along the border is extremely difficult for a number of reasons:

– the land that migrants are passing through is private ranch land. We can not search this land without permission from the owner. Ranch owners are very aware that migrants are using their land, but unlike Arizona, there  is no option to search the land without the owner’s permission.

– the land lacks specific landmarks that are easy to locate. In Arizona, the mountain ranges in the Sonoran Desert often provide a constant landmark that can be used to navigate; Texas land is flat. Migrants use phone lines, pipe lines, and fences to navigate north-to-south. This makes most missing persons reports extremely vague, simply because there are not many landmarks to reference. Border Patrol often relies on descriptions of fences (short and square shaped, tall and rectangular shaped) to figure out where someone could be.

– Combining the above information, information is vague, and even when it isn’t, is still unaccessible.

But we’ve had successes, many successes. As of today, since February of this year, we have found 28 people who were recently lost. Most of these individuals are eventually deported, but that’s a different story. At this point, what matters is that family members who call us are able to find out that their loved ones are alive. Sometimes it’s as simple as finding out that someone was apprehended last week. But often times, it takes unique collaborations between Arizona NGOs, us, and Border Patrol, to effectively locate and save someone’s loved one from an almost-certain death.

There are so many political and ethical roles that could be debated about these rescues. And for us at the STHRC, we are open to these conversations. They are important. Regardless, however, we must remember that as of right now, we are saving human lives. People are being sent to hospitals to heal. And each case involves multiple collaborations involving agencies of all kinds. Of course, if we think of systemic issues in home countries, there are many issues that still need to be addressed all over the Western Hemisphere. But we must keep in mind the small roles that we are playing in saving lives, and right now, that’s what matters.

Every day we respond to these cases. And every day I thank the individuals who talk to the families and reassure them that everything is being done to find their loved ones. I thank the multiple NGOs who stand up for the rights of these families to make sure that proper investigations and searches are conducted. I thank the Border Patrol agents who search for those who are lost. I thank the consulates who do everything they can to make sure that all agencies are are being held accountable. When it comes to these rescues, expertise comes down to experience and to patience and a heart of gold. I constantly thank those who teach me, directly or indirectly, what it means to apply skills to saving lives.