Category Archives: Human Rights, Migrant Death

Talking about the project itself

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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Day 5: Until Next Time

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The six of us focused diligently on our line search with each step we took into the sinking sand. The thicket was so dense that we could not walk in a straight line without compasses. The thorny bushes extended outward and clustered in groups; dangerously spiked tree-limbs slouched to the ground causing us to duck, twist, and maneuver underneath them to pass through. We could not ignore these spaces and walk around them or we weren’t being entirely thorough. What if a bone was dragged months ago by carnivores into a dense patch of vegetation out of plain view?

Wrist compasses to help maintain directionality.
Wrist compasses to help maintain directionality.

These areas are often too dense to see into from a distance. Our mental exhaustion was unquestionable. Our eyes swept the ground from left to right, alternating between farsighted and nearsighted focusing as we partitioned the different vegetation, rock, insects, animal burrows, and other potential safety hazards. We simply could not let our guard down during this process while we looked for human bone and any migrant’s personal affects. The wind was blowing violently which kicked up sand and further obstructed our vision. Our hats and glasses shaded from the sun but didn’t seem to block the sand from getting in our eyes, nose, and mouth and sticking to our Chapstick. The air was a humid 87 degrees for our last day of searches and dang did we feel it! Out here, it’s a different kind of beast.

Sammi and Tanya investigating the contents of abandoned backpacks, searching for ID and info.
Sammi and Tanya investigating the contents of abandoned backpacks, searching for ID and info.

During our first search of the day, Dr. Latham asked us to wait up while she investigated an area of interest. A minute later we all went over to discover that she’d found a recent camp-out. There were numerous backpacks. The fabric was fairly recent, so we unzipped them to find they were filled with non-perishable foods, prescription glasses, toiletries, electrolyte pills, fresh trash bags, and clothing. The trash bags are quite utilitarian: used for ground cover while sleeping, shelter, raincoats, blankets, and any other creative adaptation. You could sense the weight this had on our hearts once we realized these were signs of the recently living. We even found store-bought tortillas in some of the backpacks that just expired a week ago and were free of mold. A group came through here recently, far more prepared than most, and hopefully they did survive.

Following Deputy White to set up another line search
Following Deputy White to conduct another line search.

Today was our last day of searches and we had finally truly mastered our system. I am in disbelief that this is our final workday. We covered 5 miles of walking distance through extremely thick brush on 2 ranches. The average walking speed according to Deputy White is around 0.7/0.8 mph when conducting line searches through the South Texas thicket. Yet, he determined we were covering ground at about a rate of 1.7 mph. Deputy White has been conducting searches for decades, so it was invaluable to have his insight in the area. The technique seemed to be as follows: start with a coordinate of known migrant activity, or one that hadn’t been searched in a while. These could be prioritized due to 911 calls with GPS coordinates, some kind of insider intel, previously discovered pathways, or unsearched areas on a ranch that we had permission to enter into. Then spread out and sweep from east-west and west-east directions until you discover a sign or lack thereof. This is a vastly complex subject with various levels of involvement and organization, so we were largely there help out wherever we were needed. I wholeheartedly wish we could assist more often, but it’s all very complicated with this being private land.

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Dinner at Jalisco’s

Today has been my favorite day of the trip so far. Regardless of the treacherous terrain, the hardest part was saying goodbye. Goodbye to the Texas landscape: although it feels like a terrifying beach where everything is trying to harm you, it has been a genuinely beautiful sight to behold. Goodbye Eddie Canales: we have been truly inspired by your passion for saving human lives, your stories, your leadership, your contagious laugh, and your friendship. Last but not least, goodbye Deputy Don White: I cannot even begin to describe how much you have contributed to this life changing experience for our team. We are all indebted to you and look up to you so fondly.

Each trip is one in a million and is unpredictable in the best ways. This may end up being my last trip, but it won’t be the last for Beyond Borders; so speaking on behalf of future teams: goodbye all… until next time.

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Sammi

 

 

 

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Day 4: There’s no “I” in the Beyond Borders team

Today began at 7 A.M. in the hotel lobby, where the team had a breakfast mostly composed of protein and Emergen-C to prepare for another long day of search and rescue or recovery. This breakfast was very different from previous mornings because we met with people that we would be working with later in the day. Rafael, the director and founder of Los Angeles del Desierto, traveled all the way from San Diego, C.A. to help a mother in search for her son. We met his team based in Texas and also met the mother, which was pretty emotional for me. I could see the sadness in her eyes, but she was very thankful for our volunteer work and gave us a bendicion (blessing) before we made the trip down to the ranches.

The first search and recovery operation really highlighted the forensic skills that we have to offer as team. For instance, Sammi (the mapping expert), was able to show me how to successfully construct a “baseline” for a map, under circumstances that were not ideal. She was able to adapt and create a detailed map in a very timely manner. I am quickly learning that working as a solid team is a tool that is essential in the field of forensic anthropology. Maintaining communication is key to getting the work done efficiently and correctly. During my time in Falfurrias, I have also realized that it is not only about working well within the Beyond Borders team, but also being a team player when it comes to working with other organizations. In this case, we had to work with U.S. Border Patrol, the Sheriffs Office, ranch owners, and the South Texas Human Rights Center. This involves a lot of “parties” and maintaining good working relationships will allow for more successes when it comes to searches, identification and repatriation of missing loved ones.

(Sammi taking measurements for the map)
(Sammi taking measurements for the map)

The second search, was quite adventurous as it required a 4×4, all wheel drive vehicle to get to the coordinates that Rafael had provided. Our rental car is  a mini van that does not come with those capabilities which left us no choice, but to pack in the back of Sheriff Deputy Don White’s truck. Needless to say it was a bumpy, but memorable ride that involved a lot of cow sightings and tight grips to whatever was sturdy.

(My view from the back of the pick-up truck: Alba, Rafael, and his team member)
(My view from the back of the pick-up truck: Alba, Rafael, and his team member)

Once we got to the location we conducted a line search. The line searches that are done on these ranches in Texas are not what you would expect, not really a perfect straight line because of the desert terrain. It  actually involves a lot of crouching under brush with thorny branches. It is my fourth day in the field and it seems as though everything in Texas has thorns on it.  Again, our team was successful in executing a good search. We are constantly vigilant of our surroundings and each other. If we are not within sight of one other team member, we stop and use walkie talkies to ensure everyone is okay, no team member left behind! Even Sheriff Don Deputy White complemented our nice formation.

(Thorny branches)
(Thorny branches)

During our searches, we find a lot of material items left behind by migrants. Anytime we find an artifact, I am taken back because it feels unreal to be walking the same paths they once did. It leaves me reflective, asking many questions like: “Did they make it okay without this backpack that they once had with them?”. Pictured below is one of many backpacks that have been found during our searches. 

(Sheriff Deputy Don White holding backpack)
(Sheriff Deputy Don White holding backpack)

The search ended early when the ranch owner warned that there was a big rattle snake sighting, a decision I was not upset about. We made our way back to the hotel to get ready for a nice dinner hosted by Bill & Peggy Clark (Lasater), relatives of the individual who founded the city of Falfurrias, Texas. Every year they invite the Beyond Borders team to have dinner at their house. This evening, salad, pasta, and different kinds of pie were on the menu. I felt so welcomed as soon as we walked into those doors. The rest of the night was filled with many great conversations, laughs, and belly rubs!

(Cash Lasater, friendly dog and new friend)
(Cash Lasater, friendly dog and new friend)

Day four is over which means tomorrow is our last day in the field, I cannot believe how quickly this week has gone by. I am sad that we will be headed to Indianapolis so soon because I will miss all the kind and wonderful people I have met along the way. I am extremely grateful and humbled to have been a part of this team, and look forward to sharing my experiences with fellow friends and colleagues to raise awareness on this humanitarian crisis.

(Rafael, Beyond Borders team, Sheriff Deputy Don White)
(Rafael, Beyond Borders team, Sheriff Deputy Don White)

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Tanya

 

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