A large wall at the border between the US and Mexico

The US-Mexico Border

Undocumented Border Crossers

There has been a lot media attention and discussion surrounding the movement of people across the southern border of America. There is a legal process for refugees coming from south America to move into the US, but this is often ignored in the inflammatory discussions that surrounding this issue.

The paths that undocumented border crossers (UBC) use are often long and dangerous. Many of those who attempt this path die along the way. As a result, there are singificant numbers of deceased individuals decomposing along this region, which need to be identified and repatriated. Therefore this is both a national anthropological issue and a humanitarian crisis.

Most of the refugees make it into US through Arizona and Texas, but they do not necessarily stay in these states. The Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants website is the result of ongoing partnership between the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, or Pima County OME, and Humane Borders, Inc. It provides information on those who have died attempting this crossing. The project states that “Since January of 2001, over 3,000 undocumented migrants have died within the Pima County OME jurisdiction. The information presented is stark and perhaps unsettling. However, both Humane Borders and the Pima County OME believe that the “availability of this information will contribute to fulfilling our common vision.” Inadequate border control infrastructure combined with tight security in some areas have pushed UBCs into remoter areas which are often associated with more dangerous crossing.

Sociocultural Reasons

It is important to remember that there is a long history of migration in some parts of Mexico, but that more recent political policies, combined with the US demand for cheap labour, have displaced many poor from rural areas.

Mexico is a source of migrants but is also a destination for migrants from other Central and South American countries. Migration also occurs from the Caribbean (Cuba had the largest slave population in the Caribbean). There is a 750-mile Mexico-Guatemala-Belize border with few checkpoints. As a result of this complexity, the term ‘Hispanic’ has been used, but this collective definition includes many different groups of people. ‘Hispanic’ includes individuals from different geographic origins, with different population structures and population histories.

From a forensic perspective, traditional means of identification may not work with these remains, because of a lack of accessible ante-mortem data and an absence of comparative DNA.

Bio-cultural Profiling

Forensic anthropologists are involved in the identification of UBCs in the border region. They also work in cities across the US to identify those who have died there, since UBCs remain vulnerable even after they enter the country. But how can you determine whether a deceased person was a UBC or someone who has been living in the US all of their life?

One approach to identification is to examine cultural and socioeconomic factors on the physical body. We can look for ‘indicators of marginality’. These could include:

  • Biological features - such as oral health, ante-mortem trauma, stature and stress indicators

  • Semi-permanent features - such as tattoos, piercings, dental restorations and cosmetic surgery.

Research has shown that the presence of porotic hyperostosis (a condition indicative of childhood anaemia) in non-UBCs is 17% whereas in UBCs it is as high as 61%. Linear enamel hypoplasias occur in around 10% of non-UBCs but 32% in UBCs. As we have seen in previous weeks, the lived experience of individuals is marked in their bones, and forensic practitioners can interpret these features to comment on geographical origins.

The Border Project - EAAF

The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense, EAAF) is a non-governmental, not-for-profit, scientific organisation that applies forensic sciences to the investigation of human rights violations and humanitarian problems in Argentina and worldwide. Since 2009, their Border Project has created a Regional Exchange Mechanism on Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains, affecting Mexico, Central America, and the US, in order to provide an effective, regional, and scientifically based response to families across the region with missing migrant relatives. Further, it seeks to improve both the identifications of missing migrants, among unidentified remains in the region, and the response of governments to families searching for missing migrant relatives.

This project was initiated because of the distrust in the authorities investigating and identifying the missing migrants, combined with the fact that between 1998-2013 there was a 529% increase in the risk of death crossing the border into the US.

More information on the Forensic Border Coalition initiative can be found here.

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Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology

Durham University