The Forensic Border Coalition (FBC) was established in the Spring of 2013, following the high number of border deaths in 2012.1 The coalition is comprised of forensic scientists, scholars, and human rights partner organizations working to comprehensively address the significant barriers to identifying the remains of missing migrants found on the U.S.- Mexico Border. The mission of the FBC is to support the families of missing migrants searching for their loved ones and to work to improve problems related to investigating and identifying the remains of those who die while traveling through the dangerous terrain of the southern U.S. border region. This ongoing humanitarian effort is a collaboration between non-governmental and governmental organizations to:
- Identify the dead
- Better understand the crisis of migrant death and disappearance along the border
- Improve practices and protocols for the investigation of the dead
- Share information with the public and provide critical data that can be used in public policy decisions addressing deaths on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border
- Provide resources that can contribute to the development of regional and transnational forensic mechanisms for addressing missing persons and unidentified remains cases likely to correspond to migrants
The work of the FBC emerged in response to the lack of adequate mechanisms with which to address what both the ACLU and Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights have deemed a “humanitarian crisis” of migrant death on the U.S.-Mexico border. From the 1990s to the present, the U.S. government has pursued a southern border security strategy of “prevention through deterrence,” a method which redirects migrants through the use of strong and strategically located border enforcement, which forces migrants to enter the U.S. through more remote and environmentally treacherous routes in Arizona and Texas. As a result of changes in U.S. border enforcement, migrant deaths in the border region rose in the 1990s and have remained high in the years since. While statistics capturing the extent of the crisis are difficult to obtain, the U.S. Border Patrol statistics indicate that since the late-1990s, nearly 7,000 deceased migrants were found on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico.2 More than 2,500 people are still missing, and hundreds of recovered remains are still unidentified in medical examiner’s offices, morgues, or in burial locations, many of which lack proper documentation.3 In light of this ongoing crisis, there exists no regional system to transnationally coordinate missing person and unidentified remains data, so that data can be compared, identifications reached, and families notified. The work of the Forensic Border Coalition (FBC) emerged to address the urgent need for a consistent regional mechanism with which to effectively and humanely address the problem of identifying migrant remains found in the U.S.-Mexico border region.
On an ongoing basis, the FBC works with Justices of the Peace, morgues, medical examiners, forensic pathologists, embassies, and consular officials to coordinate individual missing persons cases to ensure that remains are recovered and identified, and that families are notified and returned missing loved ones according to FBC best practices. Additionally, upon its creation, the FBC determined that in order to address the complex set of barriers related to the identification of human remains found on the border, a long-term engagement using multiple research methods is needed. By employing methods such as case coordination, archival research, interviews, and archaeological surveys, the coalition has generated data which illuminates the shortcomings of regional protocols and policies surrounding the handling of unidentified remains. A central goal of the FBC is to generate research which can inform policy change needed to improve documentation and identification of missing migrants on the southern U.S. border.
Presently, the FBC is engaged in research to generate data regarding burial practices of unidentified remains in South Texas. This research seeks to (1) determine a minimum number of unidentified burials throughout the region that likely correspond to border-crossers, (2) to determine the specific locations of these burials, and (3) to gather all data necessary to facilitate exhumations of remains for the ultimate purpose of identification and repatriation. All activities of the FBC are aligned with international standards for the protection of human rights and incorporate and promote supportive follow-up procedures for families who are seeking their lost loved ones.
- According to official data from the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the migrant death toll on the U.S.-Mexico border reached 471 in 2012. See U.S. Border Patrol data available at: www.cbp.gov/sites/default/files/assets/documents/2016-Oct/BP%20Southwest%20Border%20Sector%20Deaths%20FY1998%20-%20FY2016.pdf
- Cumulative totals based on U.S. Border Patrol data 1998 – 2016; note that because these figures only capture remains that have been discovered, total deaths are likely to be higher. U.S. Border Patrol statistics are available at: www.cbp.gov/sites/default/files/assets/documents/2016-Oct/BP%20Southwest%20Border%20Sector%20Deaths%20FY1998%20-%20FY2016.pdf
- The figure for missing migrants referenced here is a minimum number determined through research conducted by the FBC presented at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) 2017 meeting. For further details on processes of minimum number evaluation and analysis, see “Missing Migrant Data Managed by the Forensic Border Coalition (FBC)” by Reineke, et al. in the proceedings of the 2017 AAFS meeting: www.aafs.org/wp-content/uploads/2017Proceedings.pdf (page 276). In addition, further information regarding issues with unidentified remains documentation was presented by the FBC at the 2017 AAFS meeting; see “Searching for the Unidentified in South Texas: The Forensic Border Coalition (FBC) Cemetery Survey Project” by Spradley, et al. and “The Forensic Border Coalition (FBC): Collaborations in Forensic Sciences, Human Rights, and Public Policy” by Kovic, et al, www.aafs.org/wp-content/uploads/2017Proceedings.pdf (pages 268-271).