In Texas, A Database Of Exhumed Objects Aims To ID Migrants Who Perished | KUOW News and Information

In Texas, A Database Of Exhumed Objects Aims To ID Migrants Who Perished

Dec 26, 2016
Originally published on January 4, 2017 9:39 am

He is known only as Case 0408. The remains of a middle-aged male immigrant were discovered in Jim Hogg County, Texas, on Nov. 3, 2009. Six belongings are the only things in the universe that may help identify him: a beat-up sneaker, a size L pullover shirt and hoodie, a ring found sewn into the waistband of his pants, a red and black lucha libre wrestler's mask, and a stuffed smiley lion.

Case 0408 is one of about a hundred migrants who perish every year in the harsh, sweltering brush country of far South Texas trying to sneak around Border Patrol checkpoints. This is one of 80 cases featured on the website of The Texas Observer, the venerable progressive magazine published in Austin for the past 62 years. The idea is to create a small, searchable database where relatives can go to find photos of personal items associated with their missing loved one — a brother, sister, or son who trekked to el norte, never to be heard from again.

"I don't feel like I'm stepping over any boundaries," says Jen Reel, the Observer's multimedia editor who produced the project, titled I Have a Name. "I hope it serves as an example of what we can do as journalists, how we can take it to the next level of problem-solving."

Most of the remains featured in I Have a Name were found in mass graves in Sacred Heart Cemetery in the town of Falfurrias in Brooks County. The skeletons had been unceremoniously dumped into plastic trash bags, shopping bags and body bags, or deposited in the dirt of an open grave. A local funeral home was criticized for its disrespectful handling of the relics of the nameless migrants. The human remains and personal items were found by a forensic anthropology team from Baylor University when it exhumed the cemetery in 2014. They are now stored at Texas State University awaiting identification.

Reel says only one case has been solved. When she was building the database, she found a child's drawing that had a woman's name on it and a prayer mentioning Ecuador. According to the Observer:

"A Google search turned up a missing persons ad in a McAllen, Texas, newspaper from November 2013 — six months after the remains were found. Texas State University, working with the South Texas Human Rights Center, got in touch with the humanitarian organization that took out the ad, which in turn contacted the family. DNA testing confirmed the woman's identity."

The project's primary goal is to identify human remains so that a lost relative can be repatriated and a mourning family can find closure. The secondary motive of the project is to humanize immigration.

"I want us to be able to understand that when we talk about statistics involving immigrants, we're talking about human beings," says Reel. Of all the rosaries, jewelry, backpacks and clothing she photographed for the project, for her, the stuffed lion and the lucha libre mask stand out.

"It seemed to me that these were gifts that he was bringing to someone who was here in the U.S.," says Reel. "He must have been reuniting with family."

But Case 0408 never made it.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

2016 was the deadliest year for migrants and refugees since World War II. Most perished while trying to reach Europe.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

But there's also a deadly migrant corridor in this country near the U.S.-Mexico border. In Brooks County, Texas the terrain is tough, temperatures are blazing and many who die there are never identified.

MARTIN: Jen Reel wants to try to change that. She's a photojournalist with the Texas Observer, and she's created a database to identify people using pictures of the things they carried with them.

JEN REEL: There were a lot of rosaries and prayer cards. Those were very difficult to photograph because people understand when they're making this trip that it's a huge risk and there's a lot of danger. I imagine that they're relying on their faith to get them through this.

MARTIN: For some, faith wasn't enough. Reel's database is called I Have a Name. Most of the things she took pictures of are from mass graves in Brooks County, Texas.

REEL: The problem was because they were so overwhelmed with lack of resources - it's a very small county, I think about 7,000 people live there - they were not identifying properly where these people were buried. Some of the remains were found, multiple sets of remains in a grave site.

MARTIN: Eventually the bodies - along with whatever items people had with them on those journeys - were exhumed by forensic anthropologists at Baylor University. They were also trying to identify them. Jen Reel met them at their lab.

REEL: They were unpacking a blue backpack that had been found with some remains. And as they were unpacking them, there were toiletries, things like that, but also a baseball. You know, growing up I had played catch almost every night after dinner with my parents. And so I wanted to create a photo essay of the personal items because I thought that these images were a way to relate. Oftentimes the images that we see come out of Brooks County are migrants who are being detained by border patrol or seeking assistance in refugee centers. So this was a different way to approach that.

MARTIN: So you got involved trying to document what was found alongside these bodies. Can you describe some of the photographs?

REEL: Sure. One case was from an individual - a presumed male - believed to be between the ages of 35 and 50. And there was a stuffed animal found with the remains. There was also what looked to be a large wedding band. And it had been sewn into the waistband of this person's jeans. And oftentimes when people make this trip they are robbed. We saw a lot of that, actually, personal items that were hidden. One gentleman had created photocopies of money that he kept in his pockets and his real money was sewn into his clothing as well.

MARTIN: Have you been able to identify any of these people?

REEL: So we launched this database on December 8. And while I was photographing for the database, I came across a case that had a child's drawing along with a woman's name and a prayer written on a piece of paper. And I did some searching online and ended up finding a missing persons ad in a small paper out of McAllen, which is down at the border. And we ended up finding the family from Ecuador who was looking for this woman. And they were able to confirm that it was her then through DNA testing.

MARTIN: As a photojournalist, it is your job to be sort of outside of the moment that you're trying to capture. But what was it like for you to document these items?

REEL: Well, I would say that the stuffed animal really stayed with me. And to me that seemed like a gift. You know, there are people waiting to be reunited with their loved ones, and they're still waiting.

MARTIN: Jen Reel is a multimedia editor at the Texas Observer. Jen, thank you so much for talking with us about your work.

REEL: Thank you so much, Rachel.

MARTIN: And an update to share since we first spoke with Jen Reel - three families recently called her team about items they recognized in the database. They're working to see if they're a match. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.