With Gratitude

The Beyond Borders trip was a learning opportunity on many fronts. Observing and participating in this interdisciplinary effort to address the crisis of mass death at the US-Mexico border was, at once, fascinating, heartbreaking, and encouraging. The conditions of poverty, violence, and structural inequality fueling this problem are undeniably complex and have been fairly well documented by academic scholars, investigative journalists, and human rights organizations. Less well documented are on-the-ground efforts aimed at alleviating migrant vulnerability and invisibility of perished migrants and families whose loved ones have gone missing in US borderlands. I have long been fascinated by how non-governmental organizations and the state define and address the needs of the most vulnerable among us. And, working with the UIndy forensic science team has afforded me the opportunity to learn about the different facets of migrant death response in south Texas. What I witnessed was, in part, a moment within a broader process of developing advocacy networks and forging professional alliances between folks with very different skill sets and expertise. This interdisciplinary effort will, no doubt, continue to evolve in response to the very specific conditions of state (non)response to this pressing set of concerns. There is much to be learned from how those on the front line continue to navigate the sociopolitical dynamics of mass death at the boundaries of the state.

I am particularly grateful for the chance to have learned about the (relatively recent) history of the crisis in Brooks County from those working on the front lines as forensic experts, law enforcement, and advocates for coordinated state response. I am also very grateful to have learned from local human rights activists and social justice warriors who work tirelessly to build justice at the border by extending compassion, building alliances, and demanding the realization of rights for migrants and their families. And, of course, the UIndy team extended to me an amazing opportunity to learn about processes and techniques of identification; from skeletal analysis and processing of personal affects to the ins-and-outs of missing persons database registry, UIndy team members were patient and gracious hosts. I am indebted to all those who shared with me, however briefly, their time, knowledge, and expertise.

At the end of the trip, I’ve taken what amounts to a “crash course” in conditions of perished migrant identification and repatriation. The lessons I learned about the complexities of migrants’ routes and the structural and physical conditions of their deaths were uncomfortable and disquieting; death at the border is as tragic as it is needless. The lessons I learned about efforts to alleviate the suffering of families missing loved ones and migrants en route, however, offered incredible testament to the difference we can make when we apply the tools of our varied disciplines in service of social problems and in the spirit of collaboration.

Dr Alyson O’Daniel