Category Archives: Reflections

Reflections on how we feel and how the mission is changing us

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.

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

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The Ripple Effect

There is no quick and easy “fix” to what is happening in the Texas Borderlands. The crisis occurring now is the result of decades of trade, immigration and political policies made and enforced by multiple countries.  It is no one person or one politician’s fault. The issues stretch far beyond our borders into Central and South America. They are fueled by poverty, violence, fear and hate. Yet, it’s easy if you are geographically, financially or socially separated from the border to ignore what is happening.  It’s easy to rationalize or to blame when it does not directly impact you.

A path formed by migrants

There are multiple goals to the humanitarian science missions of the Beyond Borders team, one of which is global citizenship. Global citizenship is an awareness and understanding of the wider world based on empowerment through education and action. Beyond Borders team members take an active role in working with others to promote a sense of common humanity and social responsibility. Part of that is experiencing and understanding the feelings of another person. These missions allow them to literally walk in another person’s shoes. Whether that be the migrant who was forced from their home on a dangerous journey, the human rights activist working towards policy change, the law enforcement officer giving everything to save the living and recover the dead, the rancher who is skeptical of strangers in their yard, the mother who has just realized her son is likely dead, the community member navigating a crisis they did not ask for or the college student unaware of their own place of privilege in society.

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Another goal is the practical application of forensic skills. Whether it’s the orienteering and observational skills associated with a search, the archeological technique required of an exhumation, or the osteology and mapping expertise entailed by a surface recovery. Many of these are skills the team members arrive with, having learned and honed them during forensic casework in the Midwest. However, in the Texas Borderlands they really see the importance of skills like communication and teamwork. When conducting a line search in thick brush it’s imperative that you not only keep eyes on your teammates but that you make sure they know exactly where you are and what you are doing. The success of the mission hinders on organization and efficiency. If a team member were to wander or get lost, the time it takes to find them takes away from the time devoted to the search. Teamwork not only involves working well together as a team but realizing that the mission is more important than your individual wants. While each member is eager to learn and get opportunities, it’s when you stop being short sighted about what you want and realize the team is only as strong as its weakest member that this is accomplished. Making sure everyone is learning or refining all the various skills and tasks, rather than doing what you like the best, makes for a very strong team.

(Sammi taking measurements for the map)

The experiences the team had this mission in Brooks County and the powerful reflections they have posted the last few days demonstrate this team has accomplished and learned so much. We built, repaired and/or filled approximately 70 miles of water stations, met with family members of the missing, cleared about 20 miles of brush during line searches, assisted local law enforcement and border patrol with recovery operations, and contributed to policy change. We accomplished our goal of volunteering our forensic skills towards a large scale migrant recovery and identification initiative. But, equally important, I watched four students grow in powerful ways over our time in Brooks County. They learned that in certain situations it is better to listen then speak, that personal minor discomforts are temporary and in no way comparable to what many are facing in the borderlands, that building meaningful relationships can be as important as skills in helping you achieve your goals, that looking out for you team can help you accomplish more than just looking out for your best interests, that you should not judge until you hear the whole story, that small efforts are what eventually bring about big changes and that walking in another’s shoes can be life changing.

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While we emphasize that this is about the crisis at our border and the lives it impacts, not about us. We must also recognize that change cannot happen unless there are people who will advocate for it. “Just as ripples spread out when a single pebble is dropped into water, the actions of individuals can have far-reaching effects.” You must chose whether those ripples work for the common good or continue to complicate the situation. I’ve witnessed both. But I feel confident this team will continue to strive for social justice while being cognizant of  the far reaching impacts of their actions, and will be the change they wish to see in the world.

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Thank you for following our journey this trip. If you wish to support any of the volunteers we mentioned in the blog please follow the hyperlinks to the appropriate pages: Beyond Borders Team, South Texas Human Rights Center or Remote Wildlands Search and Recovery (Don White).

Beyond Borders

~KEL

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Bittersweet

The word that comes to mind when thinking about my departure from Falfurrias is bittersweet. On the one hand, I am very sad that I am leaving behind all the new people I met during the week. I am going to miss sharing jokes and laughs with Eddie Canales, the director of the South Texas Human Rights Center. In my short time of knowing him I can tell that he is very passionate about not only advocating for migrant rights,  but also preventing migrant deaths. He accomplishes both by trying to change local policies in place and by constantly building/ replenishing water stations along highly traveled routes. I am going to miss daily conversations with the kind-hearted Sheriff Deputy Don White! He is a wealth of knowledge and really showed our team how to navigate through the thick, thorny brush during search and recoveries! He literally knows the lay of the Texas land and knows how to get out of “sticky” situations. For instance, on the last day of searching, his truck got stuck in the sand and was able to quickly come up with a plan to get out.

 

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Sheriff Deputy Don White’s truck stuck in sand

 

I am sad because I am going to miss the little routine that we created during our week there. I got used to waking up early to load up gallons of waters into the truck to refill stations we saw along the way to the ranches, walking 3-5 miles a day doing searches/recoveries, and our little debriefing meetings before going to bed. I am going to miss the daily cow sightings on the ranches, the team got excited EVERY time we saw one.

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cows

I am sad because I now have a slight understanding of the realities and hardships migrants face while making their journey to the United States. I emphasize slight because, while we walk the same paths and routes as migrants, we have a sense of security knowing we will make it out the treacherous terrain well and alive. We are protected from head to toe with the proper gear like snake gaiters, bug repellent, hydration backpacks, etc. The vehicle that we have waiting for us after search and recoveries, is fully equipped with first aid kits, food, and water. After a few miles of walking, we get to call it a day and head back to our hotel to sleep and rest. The reality is that migrants walk hundreds of miles for several weeks and do not get the same amount of sleep or rest. They carry the bare minimum with them because they do not have the means or capability of having all of the proper gear. They do not have the same sense of security of making it out alive.

Burial at Sacred Heart Cemetery
Burial at Sacred Heart Cemetery

During our last day of search and recoveries we encountered a recent migrant camp-out. Here, we saw items we think of as essentials get left behind. There were several backpacks filled with clothing, unopened non-perishable food items, and medications. Maybe the items just became too heavy to carry around? Meaning they were left no choice but to consolidate what was more important to carry for the remainder of their trip. The truth is that we will never know and can only speculate the reasons why those certain items got left behind. Seeing this really put things into perspective, I could not imagine having to make  that tough decision.

Backpacks that were left behind
Backpacks that were left behind

On the other hand, I feel happy to be back in Indianapolis because I know our work does not have to end in Texas. Even though Indiana is not considered a border state, we have the capabilities to be an advocate and raise awareness of the humanitarian crisis to fellow peers, friends, and family. I feel happy that I was a part of such a strong, well working team so, thank you Alba, Sammi, and Sidney!  I also want to thank Dr. Krista Latham for being such an amazing teacher/leader, and for providing this opportunity to her students.

I hope to be back one day!

The team, the number one, the gold standard

Tanya

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