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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    On the border: The forensics behind migrant deaths

    Located inside the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner is a forensic anthropology lab. On a table inside the lab lies the remains of an unidentified migrant, fully skeletal. Like 80 percent of the migrants that come through this office, he is male. He’s average height and average age. He’s missing his hands, feet and his right arm, likely thanks to animal scavengers. Unlike many other migrants, however, he has a chance of being identified.

    “What he did in his life that makes him different is that he broke his ankle,” said Bruce Anderson, one of the two forensic anthropologists at the examiner’s office. “He hurt himself years prior, sought medical attention, a doctor put those two screws in that bone and fixed the fracture, so if the family knows about that and can tell us about that, that is a nice lead.”

    RELATED: New legislature calls for a change in how to deal with documented immigrants in Arizona

    Many unidentified migrants are not as lucky. At the Office of the Medical Examiner, there is only a 65 percent identification rate, down from 82 percent in 2001.

    For the past two decades, most of the migrant deaths experienced along the borders have been concentrated in Southern Arizona. Although the trend has begun to shift towards Texas, the Office of the Medical Examiner is ground zero for dealing with these types of cases.

    This proximity has led to the creation of many partnerships and organizations. The Colibrí Center for Human Rights works on the antemortem side, compiling a database of missing persons reports for the migrants and advocating for families and migrants. In their reports the center compiles skeletal information, any items the person may have been traveling with and any identifying features like tattoos.

    The ways in which migrants cross has changed in the last few decades along with border security reform. The United States Border Patrol intentionally left open the rough terrain, hoping to use geography as an ally. This geologic fence has done little to dissuade migrants, and instead they are crossing these dangerous and remote areas where the risks of extreme weather and injury are high. The likelihood of finding these bodies is low.

    “The idea was that once migrants saw what crossing that terrain was like, they would be deterred and turn back,” said Reyna Araibi, Outreach Coordinator for the Colibrí Center for Human Rights. “While it became extremely dangerous for people to cross this terrain, they still were facing the same things they were facing before in terms of the reasons why they were migrating.”

    RELATED: Tensions remain between citizens in border communities and immigration enforcement

    When crossing into Arizona, Phoenix is the ultimate destination for most migrants. Many travel along corridors, but these routes have evolved as the drug and human smuggling operations have combined. While migrants used to primarily travel at low elevations in washes, they are now traveling at higher elevations.

    “Any place where there are population centers, that’s where they’re trying to get to,” said Gary Christopherson, associate professor of practice in the School of Geography and Development who works with Humane Borders. The group provides emergency water stations in migrant routes and works to provide geographic information about migrant morality. “You see a lot of [deaths] along the road, and those are usually traffic accidents.”

    According to data put out by the the Smithsonian in 2014 , there have been over 6,000 border deaths from 2000 through 2014. In Southern Arizona, there have been on average 177 bodies recovered each year from 2002-2013. According to a report put out by Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in 2013, the highest number of bodies recovered was 223 in 2010.

    “There may be reason to believe that 2015 was the highest year on record, Araibi said. “This is in no way a trend that is decreasing and, if anything, it may be increasing.”

    By the time some of the bodies make it to the examiner’s office they are degraded. However the majority still have flesh of some manner. It is not uncommon for bodies to come in as only sun bleached bones, as partial skeletons, or as mummified remains due to the lack of moisture in the Arizona environment .

    For bodies which are still in relatively good shape, the first step is to try and identify them through fingerprinting. If they have tattoos, these can be used as an identifier. Often times blue or black ink tattoos can be hard to see through the naked eye, so infrared light is used to decipher the image.

    “Most of the migrants come from poor communities, most of them have never seen a real dentist, maybe even a real doctor the way we have in the United States,” Anderson said, ”so we can’t just ask the family to call the dentist and send the dental records, because they don’t exist.”

    If the remains are fully skeletal or other identification methods cannot identify the corpse, forensic anthropology comes into play. Any small detail that sets aside a body from the average person can provide an opportunity for identification. If there are no identifying factors, DNA can be extracted and matched with a family reference sample.

    “The forensic anthropologist is asked to look at the remains and determine things like age, height, ancestry, sex, the period of time between death and recovery that we called the post mortem interval (PMI), which can be very important,” Anderson said. “If it’s one day we only have to look at missing persons reports from yesterday; if it’s two years we have to look at a whole lot of missing persons reports.”

    Exposure is the most common reason for death, followed by undetermined reasons due to a lack of complete remains to determine a cause of death. Very few migrants succumb to violent forms of death like homicide, the rate of which has remained consistently below four percent, according to Araibi. 

    As to the fate of the migrant on the table of the Medical Examiner, there is a good chance that he will be identified. The office often works with the consulates to help coordinate with families and gather DNA information.

    The work that the Office of the Medical Examiner does alongside their partners gives hope back to migrant families looking to find their loved ones.

    Follow Natalie Robbins on Twitter.

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