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UIndy forensics team finds migrant bodies

Posted on 02.13.2017

Associate Professor of Biology and Anthropology Krista Latham led a University of Indianapolis forensics team on her fifth trip to Brooks County, Texas back in January to identify the remains of migrants.

The trips first began in 2013 after Latham was invited by Baylor University, which had started the process. UIndy was invited because of its specialization in forensic archeology. Currently, the process is led by Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. Texas State University is where the bodies that are found are kept and where the work is done on the bodies.

Biology graduate student Justin Maiers is one of the students who went on the trip and also has been on every other trip led by Latham. Maiers said that his reason for going changed the more often he went.

“I started the project thinking that it would be a good resume booster,” Maiers said. “So you do it because it looks good and it’s an opportunity that not everyone gets. But the more I’ve worked on it, the more I’ve realized that it’s personal to so many people…. You start to realize that it means stuff not only to the families that are missing loved ones, but the communities that got this tragedy dumped on themselves. What started as an academic pursuit became … something that is a whole lot bigger.”

Along with helping to identify individuals, Latham said that the team also helps with other activities.

“One thing that we’ve been able to do recently is that [during] each trip, we volunteer at least one day at the Sacred Heart Humanitarian Respite Center,” she said. “It’s a church in McAllen, Texas, where individuals who [have] turned themselves in as asylum seekers at the border get released to this church before they’re put on a bus to [see] their family members in the United States. They’re tired, they’re scared, they’re dirty. And at the church, we’re able to help them take showers in the shower center. We lead them to where they need to go, provide them with clean clothing, [and] if they have kids we play with the kids. So we really get to help welcome them into this country so that they feel welcomed when they can.”

Biology graduate student Jessica Miller said that knowledge in science was just one thing she needed to know before heading to Brooks County.

“Dr. Latham, Dr. Daniels and Justin [Maiers] did such a good job preparing us for this trip,” Miller said. “The first couple of days that we were down there was working the field and practicing these archaeological techniques, which is very much science-based. And then you go to the respite center, and it just brings everything full circle. This isn’t just science, this isn’t just practice, this is a person. And it’s remembering that this very much is a person, and they died trying to make a better life for themselves. [This] definitely brings out the humanitarian cause. It makes us want to, especially me, do as much [or] more research learning about the culture of these people that are coming through, as well as the Texas culture, because it is all different.”

There are two separate Border Patrol checkpoints, the first on the United States-Mexican border and the second in Brooks County. There is a highway between the checkpoints, which is a major road connecting the U.S. and Mexico. People entering the country are dropped off at the first checkpoint, then find their way past the second checkpoint in Brooks County to be picked up. That journey involves having to walk over thousands of acres of flat land, struggling with dehydration, overheating and dangerous animals in the area.

Those who are unable to make their way through the trip and die in the process are found and taken to the Brooks County cemetery, Sacred Heart Cemetery. Most of the remains located are of migrants who were fleeing violence from countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and were refugees, not economic migrants looking for money, according to Latham.

“Especially with what’s going on right now, there is a lot of negative connotation going towards these kinds of individuals,” said graduate student Leann Rizor. “They are undocumented, and they are illegal. It’s all negative. But when you’re down there, you actually hear their personal stories and what they came from, and that changes your whole viewpoint on it. And I think that that’s the one thing that’s lacking in anywhere that is not around the border … a true understanding of what is going on down there.”

The bodies are identified with help from the Argentine forensic anthropology team, which travels throughout Latin America talking to people in villages and cities about how important it is to submit DNA samples if they have a missing loved one. In this way, the bodies found may be able to be identified. Once an identification is made, the Argentine team works with the consulate of the Latin American country the individual was from to send the body to family members.

Biology graduate student Erica Cantor said that to continue helping out these unidentified migrants, there needs to be more funding for the project.

“It comes down to funding and the fact that we are doing this all as volunteers,” Cantor said. “There really isn’t any money going into this right now, from the state or anybody else, and it would probably help a lot if there was. Part of getting that funding is raising awareness and having people understand what is actually going on and how it is a crisis situation, because most of us up here don’t really have that understanding.”

Latham believes that the trip was a way to represent the university in new ways and to represent UIndy’s message.

“It really demonstrated the university’s motto of education for service,” Latham said.  “What the University of Indianapolis wants to do is provide its students with an education and then they can use what they’ve learned to provide service to others. These students are learning the science, and then they are able to use that science to be able to provide a volunteer service in this human rights crisis.”

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