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Students work to identify immigrants in Texas cemeteries

Sunday, January 13, 2019

FALFURRIAS, Texas (AP) — A humanitarian effort to find, exhume and identify migrants who died on U.S. soil continues with no real end in sight.

The Corpus Christi Caller-Times reports a volunteer team of forensic anthropology students and faculty from Texas State University in San Marcos and the University of Indianapolis this month launched the fourth collaborative exhumation project at Sacred Heart Burial Park in Falfurrias since 2013.

They’re referred to as the “longterm dead.”

They were buried and forgotten by those who found them, but missed and sought after by families who stayed south of the border when their loved ones left home in search of a better life, said Kate Spradley, associate professor of anthropology at Texas State University.

Their bodies can be found in the cemeteries of small, cash-strapped counties that are not equipped to deal with a global migrant crisis, she said.

Although federal authorities largely fail to count border crossers when their remains are recovered by local authorities, 376 deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border, including several children, were recorded for 2018 in a report from the Missing Migrant Project. The International Organization for Migration’s initiative tracks the deaths of migrants worldwide.

Within the U.S., the majority of migrant deaths occur in Texas, Spradley said.

For the fiscal year 2017, 104 of 294 deaths recorded by U.S. Border Patrol for all nine Southwest Border Sectors happened in the Rio Grande Valley.

It’s unclear how many have been buried without state-mandated DNA sampling, which is their only real shot at being identified and repatriated.

The exhumed remains are transported to Texas State University for processing, analysis, long-term curation and identification. Texas State undergraduate and graduate students help process and analyze them.

The project is overseen by the International Consortium of Forensic Identification, whose members include Krista Latham of UIndy, Lori Baker of Baylor University, and Kate Spradley of Texas State University.

This is the fourth and, hopefully, last session at the Falfurrias cemetery, said Latham, who is an associate professor of biology and anthropology at the University of Indianapolis. Then, it’s on to the next site.

Initially, burial markers narrowed the focus of the excavations. Now, they’re relying on geophysical and pedestrian surveying to clear the cemetery of any remaining bodies.

Since 2013, Texas State University’s Operation Identification has collected 270 bodies through exhumations, as well as direct transfers from county officials.

They’ve surveyed cemeteries in seven of Texas’ 254 counties as part of the Cemetery Survey Project.

The project seeks to answer the following questions:

  • How many migrants have died crossing the Texas/Mexico border?
  • How many have been identified, per county, per year?
  • Where are they buried?
  • What are the county protocols regarding unidentified deceased persons?

The Indianapolis students regularly report their experiences on a blog: Beyond Borders.

Students and faculty from the university travel to South Texas on their own dime twice a year. The exposure to the archaeological expertise is not the only takeaway for them, Latham said.

“I think it introduces students to the issues in a way that reading about it doesn’t quite grasp,” Latham said. “Being a part of this pushes them more to social justice issues, which is what we need. We need people working for the rights of marginalized populations.”

The cemetery will be thoroughly surveyed before moving onto to the next county, Spradley said.

“We don’t want to leave anyone behind,” she said.

The Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State is part of the Forensic Border Coalition, which is comprised of forensic scientists, scholars and human rights organizations. Its mission is to support families of missing migrants who are searching for loved ones, as well as address issues related to identifying human remains found near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Coalition participants include the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, the Colibri Center for Human Rights, the Houston Migrant Rights Collective, the South Texas Human Rights Center, the University of Houston Clear Lake Anthropology program and Texas State’s Department of Geography.


Information from: Corpus Christi Caller-Times,

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