Texan Uses DNA to Reunite Dead Mexican Illegals With Families

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic Ultimate Explorer
March 26, 2004
Each year hundreds of people die during desperate and illegal attempts
to enter the U.S. across the Mexico-U.S. border. Some 40 percent of
these unfortunates remain unidentified, lost to the world and to their
loved ones.

Now a forensic anthropologist in Texas is using her skills to reunite the deceased with families desperate for news of their fate.

The bodies turn up on the banks of the Rio Grande River, bloated beyond recognition, or out in the vastness of the Sonoran Desert, blistered by the merciless sun. Most of the people carried no identification, as they'd been mindful of the risks of capture by U.S. border authorities.

Such stories usually end in the sad cemeteries of tiny border towns, where many unidentifiable remains are unceremoniously interred under names like John Doe #71.

But Lori Baker, a forensic anthropologist at Baylor University, in Waco, Texas, hopes to rewrite these endings by reuniting the deceased with their families for burial at home. Her organization, Reuniting Families, is dedicated to doing just that.

"This is a group of people who are not receiving the type of attention that they deserve," Baker told National Geographic News. "People are risking their lives to come to the U.S. for the incredible opportunity to do jobs that most people who live here would not even consider doing. They are just trying to find a way to support themselves and their families. Basically, it's what my grandmother's family did in the 1930s during the Depression."

By analyzing DNA samples from bones, hair, or tissue, Baker can create a positive identification among the deceased and their family members—if she has a matching sample. But with so many missing in such vast areas, how do family members know where to look?

Online Effort

Reuniting Families is itself a family venture. Baker's husband, Erich Baker, is an assistant professor of computer science at Baylor. He's created an online database that categorizes information on the deceased: approximate height and weight, distinguishing marks on the body, dental work, photographs of clothing and jewelry, and where and when the body was found. It can also compare DNA samples.

The Bakers hope that the database can serve as an information access point for those searching for information about missing relatives. If families think that their loved ones might be represented, Baker's group will send them a do-it-yourself kit for DNA sampling that can help to determine if a match is made.

"The online effort seems to be working as far as getting people involved in what we're trying to do," Lori Baker said. "These people don't have personal computers at home, but their local government offices do, and I'm contacted by them quite a bit. Word of mouth does a lot, and we're kind of counting on that."

First to Go Home

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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