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

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