Giving a name to the unidentified remains found in Southern Arizona deserts

Published: Mar. 17, 2023 at 1:40 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - Over the last twenty years, there have been 3,609 migrants, or their remains, recovered in Southern Arizona and taken to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner. Some have been identified, but many have not, leaving families heartbroken and with questions.

But teamwork is helping find answers, and give families closure they’ve yearned for.

The American dream.

Some of us are lucky enough to be born into it. Others, risk their loves trying to attain it. The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner sees this first-hand, with multiple cases of undocumented border crossers (or UBCs as they refer to them as), many of whom are found in our desolate, callous, and brutal Southern Arizona deserts.

Since 2020, the remains of 627 unidentified migrants have been brought into the medical examiner’s office, and there have been 20 so far this year. Politics aside, it’s an issue that’s been long-standing.

“This has really been about a 23 year problem for us here in Pima County,” says Pima County Medical Examiner Dr. Greg Hess. “We just didn’t really have a lot of these migrant deaths prior to the year 2000. So in the 1990s we would find about 20 or less than 20 people a year that we would now categorize as an undocumented border crosser or a migrant that died attempting to enter the United States without permission from the government to do so. And in the year 2000 we went from less than 20 to in the 70s, and then in 2002 it was in the 140s and from 2002 to the end of last year, we have averaged 160 some a year. So last year we had 172 recoveries and that’s actually above our 23 year average of again in the 160s. It is a decrease from 2020 2021. We were over 200 for both of those years. Likely that’s most related to the environment. So we set some record heat and drought in different portions of 2020 that we did not set in 2022. And that probably accounts for the drop. Again it was above average though.”

Some of the deadliest months in these deserts are May through July. Dr. Hess says the primary cause of death for these migrants brought into the office is exposure to the elements. Things that fall under this category include hyperthermia, hypothermia and dehydration. So with these conditions, time is of the essence.

“It changes all of the time. So we have remains that are fully fleshed all the way to older skeletal remains and then everything in between. So there’s year to year fluctuations in that. Last year I think there was about 50 percent of the remains that we recovered were people that we believe died within about 3 months of being recovered or less, and 50 percent we believe were probably older than 3 months. Again that was just last year, but every year is a little bit different,” says Hess.

But then comes the tough part once these UBCs are brought into the medical examiner’s office...identifying them. The office has been successful in identifying 65 percent of those who were brought in over the last 23 years, but that leaves them with more than 1,000 that they have not been able to put a name to.

That’s where the Colibri Center comes in. Mirza Monterroso is the program director for the Missing Migrant Project. The group works closely with pima county and families of missing migrants, collecting all the data they can to help bring closure. “It’s amazing. It’s unique because they are very welcoming to us, they let us work at their offices. They provide us with access to the cases every time that they come and also they have access to our database so it’s daily. Even if we are not in their office, we talk with them everyday,” says Monterroso.

But identifying someone is not something that happens overnight. “It can go from like a week if a family reports quickly and the person is found and there is something that might could go really quickly with tattoos or fingerprints records, to years. I think the longest cases that have taken for us to help identify have been 20 years and then there are the cases that we are still waiting for that,” says Monterroso.

“So it’s based on the condition of the remains when they come in, whether or not they have property items with them that could provide a clue as to who they could be and whether or not we can eventually get into contact with potential family members either through the consulate or through a non-governmental organization or ourselves and that could be a few days or it could be over a year, right, so it’s just super variable,” says Dr. Hess.

So comes the inevitable question from many. If these migrants know their lives are on the line to enter the U.S., why do they come? Monterroso says...the answer is simple.

“I think the hard part, which is crazy is that people can’t connect or can’t relate as humans like as a mother, as a parent, and I think there’s a very big misconception that it’s easy to come the right way. And it’s not, it’s impossible. It’s thousands of dollars and takes years and if there was a better way, I’m sure people wouldn’t be risking their lives and dying in the desert and I don’t think if people knew how many people and their hard it is to live there...they don’t want to leave, they’re just looking for their opportunities to make a change in their families and change not even their lives because they are sacrificing themselves to come here.”

And whatever side of the argument you are on, the hope is that it is not hard to find compassion for other human beings.

“There’s nothing happy about what we do, but there can be a sense of closure as you already mentioned or relief for family members if they are able to sort out who that person is, otherwise people just are continually wondering if they’re deceased or they’re living somewhere or what’s going on and there is a little satisfaction that we can gain when we do make those identifications and try to get those remains reunited with wherever the family members are,” says Hess.

“We just need to look deeper and care a little bit more and try to help,” says Monterroso.