Texan Uses DNA to Reunite Dead Mexican Illegals With Families

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It was word of mouth that led to the first success of the Restoring Families program.

In the summer of 2002 Rosa Cano, a 31-year-old mother of two from Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, tried to make her way to a better life in the Pacific Northwest. Instead, she eventually became the first deceased immigrant to be positively identified by Baker.

Cano's body was discovered in the Sonoran Desert near an identification card bearing her name. But Cano couldn't be positively identified in the illegal world of covert travel and false identification. Her mother had heard nothing from Cano for over a year, but she did hear about Lori Baker's work—and hoped it meant a way that she could be certain what had happened to her daughter.

Cano's mother sent blood to Baker for a DNA test. Last summer the grieving mother learned that Cano had at last been found. Though the news she received was devastating, she told National Geographic Ultimate Explorer TV host Lisa Ling how important it was to know for sure and to have the remains returned home.

"Now I'm satisfied, because now, when I have time … I can bring her an amulet or a bouquet of flowers," Cano's mother told Ling. "It's not like before, when I wasn't at ease because I was always unsure what had happened to her." She was also able to tell her grandchildren the terrible truth—that their mother was never coming back.

Authorities Welcome Help

On the U.S. side of the border, the numerous deaths put a strain on the financial and personnel resources of the various medical examiners, law-enforcement agencies, and Mexican consulates trying to manage the cases. Baker says that by and large they welcome her efforts to close the cases.

"I've only gotten positive responses from agencies," Baker said. "The area where they have the largest share of this problem is in Pima County, Arizona. They do an amazing job, and they've been great in helping us set up the database and getting us materials for DNA samples."

In Texas, Baker notes that the situation is handled county by county and that many rural Texas border communities lack the financial and personnel resources to deal with the situation.

"We have small counties with small budgets and large amounts of deaths," Baker said. "[The counties] are responsible for any analysis that takes place, for burial fees—and it's a large expense and a large task. We're talking about a lot of unwanted people who are a drain on resources and finances even in death. Most of the agency workers are very compassionate, but some people would just like to get rid of the problem any way that they can."

Yet even the most compassionate often have little or no information with which to work.

Thus graveyards are filled with nameless and faceless remains, sporting no identity, save what they may carry in their bones. Though the task is enormous, Baker hopes to soon begin tackling such backlogged cases as well as keeping up with those more recently deceased.

Expanding the project will take independent funding. Baker is committed to ensuring that no federal or state funds are used, so that families can be sure that the information will never be used to track illegal immigrants.

While Baker claims no political opinion on complex immigration issues, she insists that every human being shares the same basic rights.

"A lot of people have relatives that they are trying to locate, and they are not going to go through law enforcement because they are illegals," she explained. "We want them to feel free to contact us. Though they are here illegally, they are still grieving and hurting. They shouldn't be deprived of knowing what happened to their loved ones."

For more news from the border, scroll down for related stories and links.

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