In a piece of good news, the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act came out Congress and was signed into law on December 31, 2020. This bill, introduced by a wildly bi-partisan group of Senators — Republicans Cornyn of Texas, Tillis of North Carolina and Democrats (now Vice-President) Harris of California and Udall of New Mexico – is a step toward reuniting families with their loved ones whose lives were lost crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
The plight of families of the disappeared is a familiar topic in Mexico. Less well known is the plight of families whose loved ones cross the border, never to be heard from again. The problem has existed for decades. When I lived in Honduras in the mid-1980s I knew a local carpenter who decided to make the journey north to the United States never to be heard from again. I can only assume that he was lost in the U.S. desert, or somewhere in Mexico.
Since the Clinton administration and its policy of “protection through deterrence,” the US has steadily tightened border security. As a result, migrants have sought more and more remote areas in which to cross. The remains of missing migrants are regularly found in remote parts of Arizona and South Texas.
Since 2001, over 3,000 remains have been found in Pima County, Arizona. 227 migrant deaths were recorded there just last year, the highest number in the past decade. Using geospatial technology, the county Medical Examiner’s office in collaboration with a non-profit called Humane Borders, has produced a map pinpointing where each migrant was found along the Arizona border. If you don’t think that migrant deaths are a significant problem, take a look at the map. The density of the red identification dots is shocking.
Not only is this tragic, it is hard to address. There are technical challenges to identification and then difficulty in linking remains with their families, most of whom are from Mexico or Central America. If families know where their loved one crossed the border, and if they can figure out how to get in touch with the Medical Examiner’s office or one of the local non-governmental organizations working on reunification, they have made it past the first hurdle. Successful reunification is harder than you would think.
The obstacles to making identifications are complex. There is no international database facilitating this process. The U.S. DNA database – CODIS – is a criminal database, so undocumented families have been hesitant to store their information there. States also have their own databases. The responsibility for processing remains falls to the local authorities in the jurisdictions where the bodies are located. In Pima county, Arizona the local Medical Examiner has made downright heroic efforts, working with the Colibrí Center to identify remains and reunite families.
In Texas, many of the remains have been found around the small town of Falfurrias, in Brooks county, one of the poorest in the nation. Texas has a completely different chain of responsibility for identifying and processing remains, which adds another level of complexity to the identification and reunification process. The Brooks County Sherriff’s office and the local South Texas Human Rights Center who do this work should be heralded.
Universities and non-governmental organizations have stepped in and tried to wrangle this complex set of problems. A team of Argentine forensic anthropologists (EAAF) have also played a key role.
The whole process is expensive and much of the cost falls on local communities. A study produced by the University of Texas at Austin found that it costs $13,100 to collect and process a single body in Texas. That doesn’t include the effort to reunite the remains with the family.
All of the above is context for the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act. This bill makes certain government grants available for the processing of unidentified migrants. It makes clear that the DNA information from the families of missing migrants, run through CODIS to make identifications, cannot be used by law enforcement authorities to pursue undocumented families. This removes a big obstacle to identifications. Additionally, in an attempt to prevent migrant deaths, the bill provides funding for 170 rescue beacons. These are 9-1-1 signals which will be placed in remote areas and can be activated by lost migrants. The migrants will be detained if they use the beacons, but they won’t die, because border officials will respond to the rescue signals.
This bill has been discussed for about a decade. It is shameful that it has taken so long for it to become law. Nonetheless, it is an important accomplishment. And it only happened because of the persistence of local officials and non-governmental organizations like the Southern Border Communities Coalition who have advocated for practical solutions to this chronic tragedy. Thank you to these unsung heroes.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson