Mosaic / May 23, 2018

Evaluating the migrant death crisis

Dr. Miranda Karban talks about her forensic research in regards to the high migrant death toll south of the American border. (Julia Volpe/TKS)

Dr. Miranda Karban of Illinois College addressed the migrant death crisis in South Texas while discussing the work she completed with Project Identification (OpID) in Brooke County, Texas last summer. OpID is a project run through the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University, which identifies and repatriates the remains of migrants who die crossing the Texas-Mexico border.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology-Sociology Jonah Rubin, who arranged the talk held on Thursday, May 17, has been following OpID for some time as it intersects with his research on how Spanish human rights activists use forensic science to identify those disappeared by the Franco dictatorship. Rubin said Karban’s visit is part of an effort to foster interdisciplinary collaboration between GDH and SMC.

“I was happy to see such an intellectually diverse crowd show up, including anthropology and sociology majors, political science majors, and biology majors,” Rubin said.

The current crisis began in the 1990s, when Border Patrol began using a strategy called “prevention through deterrence,” blocking off urban routes into the U.S. This forced migrants to forge new routes through the desert, causing a spike in deaths from dehydration and exposure. Rubin said OpID illuminates how U.S. immigration policy has weaponized the desert.

“Our border patrol policy since the 1990s has directly caused more people to die in their attempts to cross the U.S.-Mexico border,” Rubin said. “But because the proximate cause of death in these cases is dehydration or heat exhaustion, the political choice that our government has made is obscured.”

Most migrants come to Texas from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras fleeing violence. Honduras currently has the highest homicide rates in the world. Migrants often travel on top of train cars, which frequently derail. This is known as “el tren de la muerte.” The rate of sexual assault for women using this route is 90 percent.

Those who survive the journey to Texas must contend with the desert. Humanitarian aid organizations leave water and supplies along common routes. Unfortunately, the supplies are regularly vandalized by the United States Border Patrol. Karban said that xenophobic rhetoric in the media has contributed to this lack of empathy.

“These are not bad people. They are not bringing guns or drugs across the border. They are trying to escape violence in their home countries,” Karban said.

Five hundred bodies have been discovered in Brooke County, Tex., alone. Because sheriffs lack the resources to deal with this crisis, remains often end up buried in mass graves.

“No matter how you feel about the immigration issue, these are human beings,” Karban said. “They are people who died trying to find a better life for themselves and their families, and they deserve better than to be dumped in unmarked graves.”

As a visiting researcher, Karban took skeletal measurements and X-rays of 139 individuals, compiling demographic information into case reports. She and other researchers examined the remains for damage, disease, injuries and other distinguishing features. An anthropology report is created and forensic artists then create facial reconstructions to circulate on social media. Personal effects can be vital in identifying people.

“A lot of the time we’ll find clothing, stuffed animals, bibles, jewelry, all of the things they were carrying when they died,” Karban said.

As of last summer, there were 238 partial and complete remains awaiting identification in Brooke County. Since then, at least 37 more have been discovered. OpID has positively identified 27 people in total. Because of strict government regulations around transporting bodies, only 13 have been repatriated.

OpID works with a few NGOs that have connections across borders but their main tool for identification is social media. Since DNA and unidentified persons databases are only nationally based, they are unhelpful unless a relative can enter the United States to positively identify and collect the remains. NGOs can help OpID communicate with family members of the deceased in other countries.

In the most basic sense, OpID is fulfilling a legal obligation to identify the bodies of those who die on U.S. soil. Anthropologists recognize rituals for dealing with the dead as a basic social principle. Rubin said that OpID is enacting this obligation.

“On the most basic level, when a dead body appears, the political authorities have a legal and moral obligation to make every possible effort to identify that person and return them to their kin and community for a proper burial. Operation Identification is fulfilling this most basic legal and moral obligation,” Rubin said.   

Karban sees the biology and anthropology involved in OpID as inseparable. She said that the project combines biology, anthropology and sociology to give people back their identities.

“I became interested in OpID because it allowed me to apply what I know about anthropology and human skeletal anatomy to an important social issue,” Karban said. “The science itself is fascinating, but even more importantly, this project allows a practical application for that science, providing closure to grieving families.”

Phoebe Billups, Staff Writer

Tags:  death toll forensics migrant crisis mosaic

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