Identifying the Bodies of Border Crossers

04/08/2015 12:34 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2015


As Arizona Gives Day comes and goes, I've been reflecting on a recent interview with Chelsea Halstead, manager of the Missing Migrant Project at the Colibrí Center for Human Rights in Tucson. Headed by Robin Reineke, Colibrí works to identify the bodies of border crossers from Latin America, who fail in their attempt. The "border crisis" was one of the biggest challenges faced by the U.S. in 2014, and as summer and its devastating heat approaches, the dangers to crossers again intensify.

Those who attempt what is very risky journey often feel they have few other options, and the disappearance or death of those who don't survive is incredibly distressing for their families. By naming the dead, Colibrí both help to secure closure for their loved ones, and contest the dehumanization of migrants, dignifying them as individuals whose lives matter. Please read my Q&A with Chelsea below and take the time to consider border politics from what may be a new perspective.

What is Colibrí, and can you describe the work that you do?

Colibrí is a non-profit, non-governmental organization dedicated to ending the loss of life and related suffering on the US-Mexico border. We see the death and disappearance of thousands of migrants as a direct result of border security measures and economic agreements. Following the disastrous effects of NAFTA, the Clinton Administration completely changed the border security apparatus. By focusing enforcement on the traditional, safe urban points of entry along the border -- places like El Paso and San Diego, where people had been crossing for years -- they assured that those crossing would be funneled into the remote, uninhabited desert. This is a strategy known now as "prevention through deterrence", the thinking being that people would see how harsh the desert was and not risk the journey. Clearly this was a really shortsighted approach, because NAFTA was devastating people's livelihoods at exactly the same time. People had no choice but to cross, and since increased enforcement and militarization in the urban ports of entry was impossible to bypass, they were forced to cross in the open desert, bringing the number of migrant deaths in Arizona from an annual average of 12 up to 170 every year.

Since 2000, more than 6,000 people have died trying to cross undocumented into the U.S. These are only the remains that have been found. We currently have more than 2,000 reports for people who are still missing on the border, presumably whose bodies either haven't been found or haven't been identified. Very few Americans know this is happening. Our goals are to support the efforts made by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner (PCOME), a small office in Southern AZ, to identify presumed migrants who've lost their lives in the attempt to cross the border. This is a very difficult task considering many travel without identification, or with false identification, and are often not found till long after their death, making the options for identification extremely limited.

In addition, we hope that our advocacy and outreach efforts will lead to a shift in the conversation surrounding the border and migrants in the U.S. We hope to effect policy change that will stop putting people in harm's way.

How, and why did the organization start?

Southern Arizona has been the site of the largest number of undocumented border crosser deaths in the United States, making Arizona the state with the third-highest number of unidentified bodies after New York and California, states that have populations that dwarf AZ's. The responsibility for identifying these people has fallen squarely on the shoulders of PCOME. For years, they've done incredible work with limited support, including having to go to drastic measures like renting refrigerated trucks and buying additional coolers because they've run out of space to store the remains.

Additionally, PCOME started receiving desperate calls from family members of people who'd gone missing while crossing. Normally, these sorts of calls would be handled by police, but that was an impossible option for many of these families. To begin with, many police would reject the case, either because they didn't speak Spanish or because they declined jurisdiction, or because the missing person was undocumented. In many people's eyes, "an illegal". Secondly, AZ's 2010 law SB1070 made it so any interaction with police could result in the person getting detained and deported, even when seeking help. Many of the families caught in this situation are undocumented.

For a few years, Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist tasked with trying to determine the identity of many of these migrants, was taking reports of missing people by hand. This is in no way part of his job description, he did it because he is an incredible person. In 2006, a graduate student in cultural anthropology named Robin Reineke came to PCOME to help Dr Anderson, and she started organizing and archiving the missing persons reports, as well as matching them with the unidentified remains that were coming in. I met Robin in 2010, stayed in touch and eventually worked on a separate but related study with her that focused on migrant death.

In 2013, the Missing Migrant Project got seed funding, and the Colibrí Center for Human Rights was born.

What is your role at Colibrí?

Program Manager. I manage the Missing Migrant Project, meaning I take missing persons reports which I organize and archive for easy searching. Our office is physically located within PCOME, so I have access to all information surrounding unidentified border crosser deaths. You can think of it as two sides of a puzzle. On one side is all the information about the missing: medical and dental records, missing persons reports, photographs, fingerprints etcetera. On the other side is the information on the dead: scene photos, personal effects, autopsy reports and, perhaps the most important, the biological profile created by the forensic anthropologist.

The biological profile will tell me an age estimation, usually given as a range. 14-17 years, for example. It will also tell me the sex and the Post Mortem Interval (PMI) -- the estimated time of death, which is also given as a range, such as 1-5 years. It may mention any abnormalities, like a previously fractured leg or an implanted medical device, and dental information. I conduct comparisons between these two sets of data and I make suggestions for possible matches. I then make an "identification hypothesis", which is a pitch to the staff at PCOME  meaning I believe I have been able to successfully match a missing person to a set of unidentified remains. If PCOME goes over my ID hypothesis and cannot find any reason to exclude it, we'll usually communicate with the consulate of the country of origin to follow up with DNA analysis and radiograph comparison, or other means to scientifically constitute the ID.

I also manage our internship program with the Honors College at the University of Arizona, speak to press, conduct research and participate in community outreach to raise awareness about the issue, usually by giving presentations to student groups.

2014 saw a spike in attempted border crossings via Latin America, by children in particular. What has been driving this?

Although myriad factors motivate migration, my understanding is that the spike in the number of child migrants is deeply related to increasing violence in the northern triangle of Central America: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. This is a really complicated issue that has roots in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, when several democratically elected governments in Central America were overthrown either directly by US forces -- as in the '54 coup of Jacobo Árbenz, president of Guatemala, by the CIA -- or by U.S.-backed military juntas. Basically, the region was plunged into decades of civil war, puppet governments, horrendous human rights violations and, in the case of Guatemala, full-blown genocide.

These civil wars ended as recently at 1996, however the region has in many ways fallen to gangsterdom thanks to the US' demand for / war on drugs. Also, it's worth noting that cartel culture was in many cases introduced to the region by the US through deportations of 'undesirables', leading to the rise of the world's most notorious international gang, Mara Salvatrucha. I think the impact of the U.S.' (illegal) involvement in the region during the Cold War, combined with neoliberal economic policies like CAFTA have really resulted in states run by governments that do very little, if anything, to protect their citizens from the overwhelming power of organized crime.

What I've heard from fellow activists is that the children were coming because they were in life-or-death situations back home. Many have parents in the U.S., and if they stay in Central America they face one of two choices: join the gangs, or be killed. It is important to remember that Central Americans have been coming to the United States for generations, mostly because of violent, invasive U.S. foreign policy, and the hysteria about the children coming this summer was really racialized and ugly, as Robin outlines beautifully in this article.

As well as child migrants, who are the border crossers?

The average border crosser we see here is a 30-something young man, usually from Mexico. Most of the time he is the family's breadwinner and is coming for economic reasons in order to support his family. This is in AZ. In Texas (TX), because the route is more direct from Central America, that's where the children are coming. Also, speaking to some colleagues in the region, many more people crossing through TX are crossing for safety reasons. These are Central Americans fleeing gang violence.

What are your thoughts on the Obama administration's announcement late last year regarding U.S. policy changes on immigration?

I am hopeful for what it will mean for the millions already here. I am sad that the proposal calls for increased border security, because we can speak to a very explicit, direct link to militarization and death for undocumented border crossers. The Border Patrol is the largest police force in the US, and it has absolutely zero oversight. In 2012, the Department of Homeland Security's budget was 57 billion dollars. Given, that includes budgets for all sorts of things other than border security, but the budget for border patrol is at a high of 18 billion.

There seems to be this idea in Washington that the border is some sort of faucet, and the human beings coming through are some sort of dangerous leak that needs to be sealed off. That if enough walls are built and enough money thrown at the problem, we can shut people out completely -- desperate people, many of whom are coming because of our violent foreign policy in their home countries. This approach to the border is not only racist and dehumanizing, it's pointless. I've gone on ride-alongs with border patrol agents, and my colleague asked one if he thought we could ever seal off the border completely. His response was "absolutely not".

We have to recognize that the more money and resources we pour into securing our border, the more we ensure that the organized crime south of it will be successful. Before 'border security' became synonymous with "national security", i.e. pre-1994, people would pay a mom-and-pop type operation a few dozen pesos to show them the best place to cross - usually a small hole in the fence. Now, it is impossible to cross without going through the cartels and either 1) paying them thousands and thousands of dollars or 2) carrying drugs across for them as payment.

In short, not only does militarization put people in harm's way -- both by forcing them to walk through the desert and by placing them in the hands of criminals -- it also fuels the drug trade and ensures that these cartels will only get more and more powerful and dangerous.

Are there any other misconceptions about border politics in the US that you'd like to address?

A million! There has always been racism, fear and hatred for immigrants coming into the US - all that's changed is the focus of the racialized anxiety and hatred. People love to claim that their relatives 'did it the right way' and they ask for migrants to 'get in line'. The fact is, for poor people there is no line. I want to ask [critics] if they think people would risk their lives walking days on end through a desert, led by criminals who often rape, kidnap and extort them if they had the option of 'getting in line'.

Additionally, the idea of job-stealers. Migrants are filling a job deficit that benefits Americans. They're cleaning our rooms and cooking our food and watching our children, all so that their children might have better opportunities than they had. Truly, I don't know what's more American than that.

Finally, I just wish people knew how devastating it is to lose someone on the border. People's lives become consumed by this uncertain loss that sometimes might never be resolved. Desperate, confusing grief becomes the placeholder for a person who is neither dead nor alive. It's a pain that cannot be resolved until their loved one is identified. If you never find out what happened to your person, who's to say they are dead?