Our trip to Eagle Pass has come to an end. Though I traveled to Texas last May and was able to experience one facet of the crisis occurring along the border, what I experienced on this trip was wholly different. To see the way migrants are being treated, thrown into a haphazardly dug hole, often with trash, is beyond horrific. The treatment of these individuals was something I naively was unsuspecting of. Going in, I thought I would most likely see awful things, but humans do not deserve to be treated this way, regardless of the situation. However, I did not expect to see what I did.
Many of the atrocities occurring at the border are not something people are able to fathom while so far removed from the situation. Experiencing it firsthand does not allow me to fully comprehend how these acts are able to occur and what the motivations are for those closely involved. However, I hope to take what I have experienced and share it with others so that I can bring awareness of what is happening to these individuals to those who may not know.
The situation at this cemetery, among many others, is terrible, to say the least. However, seeing so many different groups of people coming together to attempt to mend the situation and get the word out about what is occurring at this location was heartening. There were reporters there, from Texas as well as Mexico, to provide accounts of these circumstances. To see another group like Texas State University work as passionately in this situation as we did was great. It was also nice to see our team come together and work so hard and efficiently for something we all care about so strongly. We functioned very well together, and I feel we were able to complete a significant amount of work during our time in Eagle Pass.
Traveling back home causes a lot of complex feelings to rise to the surface. It is difficult to see what occurs to these individuals and to hear what they went through and then return to my everyday life. I am incredibly privileged to be in the position I am, which can be challenging to contend with when I see what many migrants face. I strive to continue to utilize this knowledge to spread awareness and communicate with others about this crisis. Though this trip was difficult physically and emotionally, I am extremely grateful I was able to experience it and learn the many lessons I did. These lessons not only contribute to my education and application of forensic practices, but more importantly, they contribute to my growth as a person, and I am thankful for that.
We went to bed late yesterday after a final debriefing meeting and packing. We felt good about the work we did as a team. We woke up to news that all domestic US flights were grounded due to issues with the FAA computer system. But we packed up Monica and headed toward San Antonio hoping for the best. I’m responsible for my student team members and getting them home safely, but I’m also painfully aware that our barriers to travel are mere inconveniences compared to the those faced by many.
We stopped for a last round of Whataburger breakfast taquitos and decided to eat breakfast in a park at the base of the Eagle Pass International Bridge. Here we saw the Rio Grande and a wall constructed of box cars and barbed wire. The river looked clam and peaceful, yet we were facing what caused the death of many of the individuals we had just exhumed from the cemetery. This was our last memory of Eagle Pass before leaving town.
While driving to San Antonio we were notified our first flight was delayed but not cancelled. That gave us a few hours of sightseeing and time for lunch. This down time creates a buffer between our work in the Texas Borderlands and returning to Indiana, something that is essential for the mental health of the Beyond Borders team members. There are many coping mechanisms enacted by last responders and forensic scientists who repeatedly confront things that are disturbing and emotionally challenging to interpret and better understand. In Texas and in our daily casework in Indiana I try to instill facing, rather than avoiding, the emotional response of casework. I teach my team to rely on each other for support and to come to me with any feelings or questions they have. The hope is this will create a healthy pattern of mindfulness but I also have resources for professional help with coping strategies. So our last day of sightseeing is not meant to downplay the mass disaster situation in Eagle Pass, but is always highlighted to show some of the deliberate steps we take in making sure we stay capable of contributing to do this work.
After several delays (of both flights) we were finally headed home. Our last flight experienced a lot of turbulence, so we were all wide awake for the 1am landing in Indianapolis. Please continue to read the blog for the next week as we all post our post-trip reflections.
Day 6 was quite the day. We started out with some hotel breakfast, including Texas shaped waffles, eggs, refried beans, and a much needed Emergen-C, to get us ready for the day as we knew it was supposed to be the hottest temperatures of our time in Texas. Once we arrived at the cemetery, we set out to work on a burial we had begun yesterday. We rotated in teams of two using a mattock to remove portions of the wall and trowels to remove smaller debris to reveal the edges of the burial. As we learned more about our plans for the day, we split our team to work on two burials. Kaitlyn and Jordan worked on fully exposing the burial from yesterday, while Olivia and I began removing debris and tracing some promising clues to find the individual suspected to be in said burial and Dr. Latham switched between the two.
Our communication as a team has grown so much. One of the most repeated comments during our meetings on where we can improve has been spatial awareness, knowing where we are and what we are doing in regards to not only others but the tools, burial, and burial walls. I think Olivia and I bonked heads at least 12 times today, BUT we worked so efficiently with one another we almost didn’t need to say what our next move was because the other was already ready to help. For most of the day, the two of us were working almost upside down, having to take small breaks to allow the blood to go where it’s supposed to after pooling in our heads. As we continued to work, Kaitlyn and Jordan had fully exposed their burial and were ready for measurements. Together, we completed the measurements, composed a strategy for a safe and efficient burial removal, and successfully moved as one. We also learned this individual already has a suspected ID hypothesis.
We then had lunch. Lunch is a good time for us to decompress a bit, stretch, get rehydrated and replenished from our hard work. Today, we took an extended lunch break in an effort to respect a funeral that was beginning in the cemetery. We understand cemeteries are places where people come to honor their loved ones who have passed and would never want them to feel as though our work comes before their grieving. Once the funeral attendees began to leave, we decided to slowly and discretely get back to work.
After lunch, Jordan and Kaitlyn moved down to work with Olivia and I as Dr. Latham was on bucket duty. Excavating burials can be very tricky. Although general direction can be assumed, depth is variable. The ground is rarely level when an individual is placed in the ground, so we must always proceed with caution. As the Texas heat rose, we decided to use our timer and switch out our teams to be able to continue to do our best work and stay healthy. Eventually, we had completely uncovered the burial. We marked our corners and performed our measurements. As Texas State’s team took their measurements, the decision was made to wait to remove the individual from the burial site until morning as it would be too hot for the team in the intake tent. By the time you read this, Texas State’s team will have removed the individual and be working towards collecting information for an ID.
One new challenge we faced was having media present. Individuals from different news/media outlets were on site filming, taking pictures, and talking to some of the site leaders. This creates a few challenges. Having a camera filming your every move or in your face can be off-putting, but in pictures, videos, etc, things can very easily be misconstrued. Not only that but we, as team members, represent our professor, our lab, and our university, so we want to minimize any possible confusion or controversy. We direct all questions to Dr. Latham. She is our team leader and is the appropriate person to answer questions. We also often talk to one another and provide encouragement when a team member makes an accomplishment. We tend to smile, sometimes often depending on what’s going on. We would never want this to be misconstrued as “having fun” or being disrespectful while performing such delicate and important work. We care intensely about what we do, and to have that be misunderstood would be extremely unfortunate.
Since our last work day had now come to an end, we did a final exploration of a possible burial in close proximity to our exposed burial, cleaned our equipment, and had our final ice cold Coke as a team. We also had a little ceremony for our gloves that were definitely not coming back in our suitcases after the week we’ve had. We finished up the day with a great dinner with Deputy Don White, Eddie, and Dr. Spradley before coming back to the hotel to have our final debrief and clean the rest of our personal gear for travel.
Our last day debrief is different from the rest because we have a few different questions than usual, one housekeeping and one personal. Along with saying what we did well and any equipment we may need to change for upcoming trips, we discuss coming back to normal life and how hard that adjustment can be. [I am going to save many of my thoughts for my post-trip post.] We talked about how we are a team even when we return to Indy and to lean on each other when needed.
Saying goodbye not only to everyone we made such great connections with here but also to the work we have devoted ourselves to for our time here is hard. I’m thankful for the opportunity to have helped make even a minute difference.