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Death on the Border: Trying to Identify the Youth Who Never Made It

Baylor University
Members of the Reuniting Families Project excavating bodies along the border.

With thousands of children being detained by the Border Patrolalong the Texas border, most of the spotlight seems to be focused on government policy and economic response. The Obama administration believes the ongoing immigration crisis is one that will likely to continue, with estimates of up to 90,000 unaccompanied youth being detainedby the end of this fiscal year, three times the amount of last year.

While thousands of undocumented migrants successfully make it across the border, many do not. This has led to an overwhelming amount of deceased, many whom are children, that local authorities are unable to properly identify or even bury. The Texas Standard’s David Brownspeaks forensic anthropologist Dr. Lori Baker, who has been working along in South Texas in an attempt to locate and identify the scores of remains along the border.

"We’ve uncovered infants, toddlers, lots of individuals that are eleven years old, fifteen years old, and so forth. Many individuals are not yet adults” Baker says. Baker is the founder and executive director of the Reuniting Families Project, an organization identifying the remains and making contact with the families of those deceased to bring a sense of closure.

“Most of the time we have no idea who the individual is and there is not anything to help us with that process. If there is identification found, many times its false identification," she says. "Sometimes we find people with several ID’s and get hopeful that one of them would be the correct one. Unfortunately, sometimes someone with two ID’s, the other person didn’t make it, and they were carrying the ID to let their family know and neither made it along the way."

Baker says Reuniting Families is picking up the slack for local authorities, who lack the funding and personnel to properly identify and bury those who've perished along the border. While much of this may seem like a relatively recent problem, Baker says authorities have been overwhelmed for the past few years, and that the warning signs have been apparent for some time.

"It’s a complete disaster on the border right now and we knew that was going to happen," she says. "When I was there a couple of weeks ago we had border patrol agents trying to find formula to feed children because they didn’t have any of the right food or clothing or anything else."

Still, Baker says, even the unaccompanied minors that survive the journey still face the risk of being ensnared in sex trafficking. It's common knowledge on the border, she says, that an 11-year-old girl is worth $1 million. She says increased attention is overdue, but believes that concerted involvement from the Justice Department would help combat the sex trafficking among unaccompanied minors. 

"I'm very frustrated about this because we've been saying that these numbers – especially unaccompanied minors – has been growing exponentially," Baker says. "So, we had plenty of forewarning that this was coming, but no action to deal with the consequences. It's a complete disaster on the border right now, and we knew that was going to happen."

David entered radio journalism thanks to a love of storytelling, an obsession with news, and a desire to keep his hair long and play in rock bands. An inveterate political junkie with a passion for pop culture and the romance of radio, David has reported from bases in Washington, London, Los Angeles, and Boston for Monitor Radio and for NPR, and has anchored in-depth public radio documentaries from India, Brazil, and points across the United States and Europe. He is, perhaps, known most widely for his work as host of public radio's Marketplace. Fulfilling a lifelong dream of moving to Texas full-time in 2005, Brown joined the staff of KUT, launching the award-winning cultural journalism unit "Texas Music Matters."
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