The Reuniting Families Project – Forensic Anthropology and Human Rights

On March 21, 2013, ABC News published an article titled “US Mexico Border Deaths Are Increasing Report Says.”  This article noted a report published by the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) which reported a 27 percent increase in migrant deaths from 2012 to 2013.  Their report further stated that this increase in deaths was due to the more remote and dangerous areas in which migrants have been attempting to cross the border because of stricter border enforcement.  NFAP reported that in 2012, 477 immigrants died while trying to make the voyage from Mexico into the United States.  These “illegal immigrants” make their voyage for a number of reasons.  Many of them are escaping unsuitable living conditions at home, or even worse.  They risk their lives in hopes for a better chance at life in the United States, but unfortunately, some of them do not make it.  The concern for migrant deaths has increased in the public in the last couple of years, but some experts have been well aware of this trend for quite some time.  One of those experts is an associate professor of anthropology at Baylor University.  Dr. Lori Baker founded The Reuniting Families Project in 2003 in order “to establish a system for the identification of the remains of deceased undocumented immigrant migrants found along the U.S./Mexico border.”  Over the years, the project has attracted the attention of many individuals and has morphed into the International Consortium for Forensic Identification (ICFI).

The project utilizes this group of forensic scientists of different skillsets to collect all possible data that could aid in the possible positive identification of an individual. Among this group of high-skilled specialists are forensic anthropologists.  A forensic anthropologist uses their knowledge of the human skeleton to create a biological profile including sex, ancestry, age, and sometimes height.  Out of the 206, give or take, skeletons in the human body, each one has potential to provide more information about an individual.  The human skull alone can indicate the sex, age, and ancestry of a person.  The robustness of the bones on the cranium can distinguish between a male or a female, the teeth of an individual can give clues to their age, and the breadth of the zygomatic bones or the rounding of the eye orbits can indicate a person’s ancestry.  For example, a Caucasian male will have a robust jawline with rounder eye-orbits, while a Black female will have a more rounded jaw with more square eye-orbits.  The pelvic bone is also extremely indicative of the sex of an individual.  The curvature of the sacrum and the breadth of the pelvic inlet are tell-tale signs of whether an individual is a male or a female.  An extremely curved sacrum is indicative of a male, while a large pelvic inlet is a tell-tale female.  The study of forensic anthropology is a relatively new field compared to many others and was not officially legitimized as a sub-discipline until the 1940s.  In the 1950s, the United States government used the skills of forensic anthropologists to identify casualties of the Korean War.  Since then, forensic anthropologists have assisted in the identification and repatriation of hundreds of thousands of individuals in situations of war and other violations for human rights.  Some examples include collecting evidence of mass execution during the Rwandan genocide and excavating mass graves in Argentina.

The ICFI uses the information collected by forensic anthropologists to aid in the identification of the hundreds of individuals that die in Texas on their way to what they hope is a better life in the United States.  The ultimate goal of the organization is to “determine identities and returning the deceased to their families.”  Using the biological profile established by forensic anthropologists, the organization attempts to match the description of the individual to missing person files collected by the group as well as databases established by various governmental and non-governmental organizations.  It mainly focuses its efforts in Brooks County, where the highest number of unmarked, unidentified graves in Texas are located.  Other factors as to why there is a higher number of cases in this county is due to its low population, and therefore absence of a need for a medical examiner.  International identifications are hard enough as it is, and without the proper resources can prove even more difficult.  Not only does the organization work with the deceased, but they also work with other organizations that represent the living to help create missing person files and gather as much information about the last-known whereabouts of the person in question as well as their clothing.  When possible, DNA samples and pictures are also obtained in order to create the most comprehensive case file possible.  After a positive identification is made, the organization works with governmental and non-governmental groups alike to find a way to return the remains to surviving family and loved ones.  This is often a difficult process, because of legal issues and the current tumultuous relationship between the United States and the various countries that the immigrants are coming from.

The International Consortium for Forensic Identification currently has four core team members: Dr. Lori Baker, Sergeant Jim Huggins, Dr. Kate Spradley, and Dr. Krista Latham.  Dr. Lori Baker, as mentioned before, is the founder of the Reuniting Families Project.  She also maintains her position of executive director, and works as an associate professor at Baylor University.  Her specialties include molecular and forensic analysis of skeletal remains.  Sergeant Jim Huggins is a retired Texas Ranger that brings his experience and expertise in death investigation to help aid in the legal aspect of the work that the Reuniting Families Project achieves.  He also continues to lecture in forensic science at Baylor University.  Dr. Kate Spradley is a biological anthropologist with interests in human variation and forensic anthropology.  She applies her knowledge in human variation when estimating sex and ancestry for individuals that are considered Hispanic.  Dr. Spradley is an associate professor at Texas State University as well.  The final member of the team, Dr. Krista Latham, is an associate professor at the University of Indianapolis and specializes in techniques for age estimation at death.    

As is apparent from the main professions of the team members of the ICFI, the education and training of future forensic scientists is also important to the work that the team is doing.  The project often uses the help of students studying in the field of forensics to exhume, analyze, and collect data for each case file.  Students are given the opportunity to aid both in the identification process, but also aid in the exhumation and data collection of individuals.  As is customary in the human rights and humanitarian action fields, the more people that are involved in a project, the more successful the mission or project can be. 

The International Consortium for Forensic Identification’s Reuniting Families Project is just one example of the application of forensic anthropology and other forensic sciences in human rights cases.  The myth that social sciences and hard sciences do not mix well is debunked in the case of human identification and repatriation of those who have lost their lives while crossing the United States / Mexico border.  Other successful examples of forensic anthropology helping in human rights cases are seen in the cases of the Rwandan genocide as well as the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as the case of “missing people” in areas such as Argentina and Guatemala.  Another successful venture specifically dealing with those trying to cross the United States / Mexico border is the work of Dr. Bruce E. Anderson at the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office in Tuscon, Arizona.  The two groups often collaborate in order to discern methods and practices that each project uses and which ones can be used to help streamline the process on both sides.  As the field of forensic anthropology continues to expand, as more research is conducted, the possibilities for its application in the human rights field is even greater.  New methods for sex estimation, ancestry estimation, and age estimation are also being discovered at a rapid rate.  It is also important for organizations such as the International Consortium for Forensic Identification to exist because of their collaboration with the human rights groups in Southern Texas.  Increasing the number of missing person case files that the Reuniting Families Project has on file will also increase the likelihood of a positive identification becoming a reality.  The publicity that is brought upon the issue of migrant deaths through organizations such as the ICFI help make the public more aware of the violation of human rights that people must endure in hopes for a better life on “the other side of the fence.”

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