Sarah Illingworth, border crisis

Q&A | Chelsea Halstead on identifying the bodies of border crossers

Chelsea Halstead manages the Missing Migrant Project at the Colibrí Center for Human Rights in Tucson, Arizona. She works to identify the bodies of border crossers between Latin America and the US, who fail in their attempt. Sarah spoke to her about some of the factors driving the current border crisis.

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 – the Clinton Administration assured that those crossing would be funneled into the remote, uninhabited desert.

“NAFTA was devastating people’s livelihoods at exactly the same time. People had no choice but to cross.”

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 (AZ) from an annual average of 12 up to 170 every year.

In short, it is a policy built on human suffering. The number of deaths is now the equivalent of a small plane crash in Southern AZ every year for 15 years. The only difference is there is no passenger manifest – meaning we have no idea who most of the migrants are.

Since 2000, more than 6,000 people have died trying to cross undocumented into the US. To put that number in perspective, that’s more than the number of people who died in 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina combined. Additionally, 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.

“In short, it is a policy built on human suffering.”

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 medical examiner’s 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 US. 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-most number of unidentified bodies after New York and California, states that have populations that dwarf AZ’s (Cali is about 38 million, NY is almost 20 million and AZ is 6 million).

The responsibility of 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.

Read Sarah Illingworth on boundaries, & the US border crisis

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, and your background more generally?
My background is in Human Geography, meaning I studied the relationships between people and their physical, social, political and economic environments. My emphasis was in human rights, and following my meeting with Robin in 2010 I began studying the causes of border crosser fatalities along the US-Mexico border, later writing my thesis on the subject.

My role at Colibrí is 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 the one side is all the information about the missing… On the other side is the information on the dead.”

You can think of it as two sides of a puzzle. On the one side is all the information about the missing – medical and dental records, missing persons reports, photographs, fingerprints etc. 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 e.g. 14-17. It will also tell me the sex and the postmortem interval (PMI) – the estimated time of death, which is also given as a range e.g. 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, 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, particularly among children. What has been driving this?
I am not particularly qualified to speak on this, but I can offer some amateur analysis. Although myriad factors motivate migration, my understanding is that the spike in 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 US-backed military juntas. Basically, the region was plunged into decades of civil war, dozens of 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.

“Cartel culture was in many cases introduced to the region by the US through deportations of ‘undesirables’.”

Also, it’s worth noting that the 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 US’ (illegal) involvement in the region during the Cold War combined with neoliberal economic policies like CAFTA [Central America Free Trade Agreement] 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 US, and if they stay in Central America they face one of two choices: join the gangs – I’ve heard recruitment begins around age 10 – or be killed. What is most important to remember is that Central Americans have been coming to the [United] States for generations, mostly because of violent, invasive US foreign policy, and the hysteria about the children coming this summer was really racialized and ugly, as Robin outlines beautifully in this article. Also really good is this article about unaccompanied children coming through Ellis Island.

Who are the border crossers? Are they young? Parents looking for work? What are some of the key motivations for trying to migrate?
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 US 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.”

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 common misconceptions about border politics in the US you’d like to address?
Ah! A million! I think the worst misconceptions are about the people coming through. There has always been racism, fear and hatred for immigrants coming into the US – in many ways it’s an American tradition to hate newcomers. All that’s changed is the focus of the racialized anxiety and hatred. Ben Franklin was famous for hating Germans, often commenting on their “complexions” and their tendency to stay in their own communities, continue to speak German and have too many babies.

There were similar fears voiced by some of the founding fathers and others who held important positions in our young democracy about allowing the Irish, Jews or Italians in. I don’t think people realize how they’re parroting the same narratives that were leveled against their ancestors who came not that long ago. 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. There is no possibility of getting in legally unless you can prove you have property, money and a high level of education. Even then it’s difficult!

“I don’t think people realize how they’re parroting the same narratives that were leveled against their ancestors who came not that long ago.”

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. It’s just so far from reality. Study after study has shown that migrants do significantly more to elevate the country of origin than they do to hurt it, they’re 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.

Another misconception is that the border is this horrible, dangerous place. It’s a beautiful place with a rich tapestry of diverse cultures, foods, music and language. It’s a region that has a deep history of circular migration, exchange and cultural vibrancy.

Finally, I just wish people knew how devastating it is to lose someone on the border. Having a missing loved one is a nightmare I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. 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.

“Desperate, confusing grief becomes the placeholder for a person who is neither dead nor alive.”

There is a reason that every single culture on planet earth practices death rituals. It is so important for the family and the community. It’s a ceremony, an agreed-upon narrative that everyone can understand. It’s a passing of a person from the world of the living to the world of the dead. If you never find out what happened to your person, who’s to say they are dead? It’s one of the few instances where hope, usually a beautiful thing, can be transformed into this highly destructive emotion that can fracture a family.

Conflicting narratives emerge. One family member might wish to have a funeral, but another may want to hold onto the hope that the person is alive. Maybe they don’t come to the funeral, maybe they don’t speak to each other ever again. I’ve taken reports from individuals who ask me not to call anyone else in the family but them, because if their family found out they were reporting the missing person to an office that searches among the dead, they could be disowned or berated.

Chelsea Halstead is Program Manager of the Missing Migrant Project at the Colibrí Center for Human Rights in Tucson, Arizona.

Sarah Illingworth is Editor at Impolitikal, and Communications Officer for the Open University’s Learning and Teaching Innovation department (Translation lead). She has an MSc in Poverty and Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.