Ten Years

It’s been 10 years since my first naïve trip to the Texas Borderlands. Ten years since I thought I was going to Brooks County for one trip to be a forensic archaeology consultant on a large scale exhumation effort. In those 10 years so much has changed yet so much has stayed the same. As our team prepares for its 10th year of travel to the Texas Borderlands I can’t help but reflect on the last decade of the Beyond Borders team.

Team members digging
The 2013 University of Indianapolis Beyond Borders Team

What has changed? Most importantly, unidentified human remains are beginning their journey to identification. Those buried without a name or left in the brush are being recovered and efforts taken to identify and repatriate them to their families. This brings some closure to the families of the missing that are seeking information regarding their loved ones. The efforts of of the many organizations involved in this large scale identification initiative are bringing awareness to the issues and the lack of resources available to locate and identify the dead. Over the last ten years we have worked with other groups to change the linguistics describing these individuals to more accurately reflect their reality. When we first started this work the dead were called “Undocumented Border Crossers” or “UBCs”. While that terminology is not factually wrong, it is misleading in that many of the dead are migrant refugees fleeing gang violence, sexual violence and political violence. The term “migrant” or “refugee” is more reflective of their circumstances and more humanizing. The hard work of many organizations are changing the laws in Texas surrounding unidentified migrants. From expedited death certificates to The Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act, progress is being made. On a more personal note, what has changed for me? I have formed lifelong relationships with the most dedicated, empathetic and big-hearted people I could imagine. When the world feels ugly and overwhelming, I just need to think of the incredible humans I’ve met on this journey to be reminded of the love and light that exists in times of darkness. However, it’s the perspective that is the most important yet most difficult to discuss and reflect upon. I entered this journey with a feeling of self-importance importance. I was an expert that was called to help “fix” a problem. But I was quickly humbled as I learned that there is no one person working on these issues that is any more or less important than any other. The feeling of self-importance was quickly replaced with feelings of humbleness and gratitude to be invited and included in a process that has allowed me to grow in unbelievable ways. I am not the same person or professional that I was 10 years ago and that is a benefit for my field, my students and the decedents that I serve in the Texas borderlands and beyond. But this is not about me. I can reflect on how it has changed me as I think it might benefit others, but while I’ve changed too many things have remained the same.

The deaths continue, with 2021 on record pace for migrant deaths in Brooks County and other border counties. The discrimination and racism continues, as well as the fear of how these non-citizen others will impact local communities as evidenced by a focus on the more rare cartel and illegal activity rather than the more common story of parents trying to save the lives of their children. The lack of empathy and lack of care continue as people shake their heads and ask why anyone would choose this journey, rather than understanding that staying is certain death and the journey is only probable death. The desperation of the families fleeing life threatening violence continues as gang activity and corruption dominate in some Latin American countries. The lack of resources for border counties overwhelmed and working under mass disaster situations continues as volunteers try to provide services the Federal government does not provide. The sensationalism continues as the media focuses on what makes a good story rather than what is actually occurring. These issues predate my time in Brooks county and while there has been some progress, the fact these deaths continue to occur at such high rates and that most people look the other way is unacceptable. When the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members, its pretty clear how we score.

~Dr. Latham