A large metal cross with smaller crosses in the background in a grassy field.


Two team members excavating in a trench as others look on from above
Forensic Archeology

As I reflect back upon our trip to Texas this year I keep returning to the statement “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” We started working in Brooks County in 2013 when we were invited to assist with the exhumations in Sacred Heart Burial Park.  We worked hard and provided an important contribution to the work being started there.  As we moved on to supervise the exhumations the following year, conduct skeletal analyses, navigate the identification system and interact with the community, we became more deeply embedded in the issues and more aware of the extent and complexities of the humanitarian crisis on our border.

After being away from my son for almost two weeks, he asked if we could have a special day together and go see the movie “Captain America: Civil War.” The movie focuses on the Avengers, a group of superheros tasked with doing “good” for humans across the planet. Up until this point the heroes operated as their own independent entity. In this episode, the heroes are required to accept accountability for their actions by entering into a political agreement with the United Nations that requires them to follow specific ordinances and governances. This divides the Avengers team with some of them wanting to continue their humanitarian efforts without governmental interference and others accepting of the oversight. The end result is two groups of heroes working for “good” from different perspectives.  Throughout the movie I kept thinking of the efforts in South Texas to save the living and identify then repatriate the dead.

Three team members with a red cross flag
Building Water Stations

There are many governmental and non-governmental organizations working on these efforts, and everyone is coming from a place where they feel they are doing the most “good”.   Some of these individuals are bound by rules and standard operating procedures. They are functioning within the law. This means that they have greater access and resources due to their governmental standing but also less freedom to quickly change and adapt to different circumstances.  These rules and guidelines are an important part of standardization of approach and process within the medicolegal system.  Other organizations are operating outside of the law. This does not mean they are doing anything illegal. It means they are not restricted by the same rules as the governmental agencies. They have more restricted access and resources, but they also have more freedoms. They can modify their policies and adapt to new and unforeseen circumstances. I do not see either of these approaches as better than the other as each operates differently in different situations.  But, in order to make progress regarding the crisis on the border these groups do need to work together.  We need to remember our common goal of dignity in life and in death, and not let our different approaches distract as. As in the movie “United we stand, divided we fall”.

Map of migrant deaths in South Texas
Migrant Deaths in South TX

Forensic anthropologists working on the border are part of a team of people working from different perspectives to do “good”.  There are certain resources and permissions that we need from those working within the law since most of us are not employed by any governmental entity. There are also certain freedoms and flexibilities that we enjoy by working outside the law. At times we want that accountability and at times we are thankful for our independence.

By comparing those working on border issues to The Avengers, am I calling them heroes? From those that save lives through search and rescue or maintaining water stations, to those who lighten the spirit through a warm meal or the gift of hospitality, to those that identify and repatriate the deceased to a family that needs closure, to those struggling to change policy  – By touching one heart or saving one life, yes I think they are heroes to someone.