THE BLOG
09/20/2014 06:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Watch: Underreported Story -- Reuniting Families With Remains of Dead Migrants

As a media-grabbing story, the surge of juvenile immigrants from Mexico and Central America, many of them unaccompanied as well as undocumented, seems to have gone off the boil.

It's probably an exaggeration to claim, as NPR was suggesting on air last weekend, that the issue has faded away. (Local stories do abound though, like northern Virginia's schools receiving more migrant children, or Maryland housing more such children with good neighborly families). But among national media obsessions, the "kiddie illegals" hook has certainly lost its preeminence.

We're left with the ongoing, indeed saddening, repetitive saga of undocumented adults making their desperate efforts to find livelihoods north of the border. But one grim aspect of that struggle -- the continuing deaths of such adults in Arizona's unforgiving desertland -- remains under-reported at the national level, though it thankfully does get considerable local attention (like next month's screening in Nogales, AZ of the Sundance-winning documentary Who Is Dayani Cristal?)

I make my own stab at redressing the national underreporting with a TV report for the PBS network this weekend. On the Religion and Ethics Newsweekly program, I profile an extraordinary joint effort by the Medical Examiner's Office of Pima County, AZ and a new humanitarian organization called the Colibrí Center for Human Rights.

Watch the video here:

The agencies' combined mission is to identify the oftentimes badly-decayed human remains found in the Sonoran Desert (all too frequently ravaged by animals and vultures, too) and match them to the inevitably sketchy information that exists about individuals who are known to have gone missing.

As a service to the deceased person's families -- often on both sides of the border, some with United States citizenship and some not -- the work is a remarkable study in simple decency and human compassion. In the words of the Colibrí Center's founder, anthropologist Robin Reineke:

"The most important and sacred baseline for our work is providing a service to the families of the missing. Care of the dead is such a key part of the Catholic faith."

A steady number (varying between one and 200 a year) of corpses discovered on the Arizona side of the Sonoran Desert are, and will often remain, entirely unidentified.

But Colibrí's assiduous work, compiling and cross-referencing very thorough missing persons' reports that take into account commonly overlooked personal details, has now resulted in the return of identified remains to many families who have lost a loved on. A decent burial ceremony is then possible, and an end can be marked to a long period (many months, or even years in some cases) of anguish and uncertainty. Reineke adds:

Remembering and honoring the dead is extremely important to these communities. There are so many rituals and traditions after someone dies that you can't go through, if you don't have a body -- or if you don't truly know if the person is dead or alive.

Appropriately enough, the name Colibrí is the Spanish word for humming-bird, which is regarded in some Central American cultures as a go-between between the worlds of the living and the dead.

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Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his regular online column, The Media Beat (unavailable due to server problems, but only temporarily). The Media Beat podcasts are always available on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.