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Here & Now’s Robin Young recently spoke to a rancher in the town of Falfurrias, Texas, 70 miles inland from the border, who felt that the recent spotlight on child migrants was taking the focus away from adults and teens crossing — and sometimes dying — on his ranch and on the vast expanse of land around it.
Today, she spoke to a Texas professor and her student who feel the same way, but came to the conclusion from a different vantage point. Baylor University professor Lori Baker and forensics student Audrey Murchland have been working in Falfurrias to exhume and identify bodies that no one else has documented.
“We have to carefully work by hand in case there’s someone that’s not been interred properly,” said Murchland, a senior anthropology student at Baylor who is working with the Reuniting Families Project, alongside other students.
The work takes place in the blazing sun and can result in dozens of bodies a day. Murchland and other Baylor students pay their own expenses, but get school credit for their back-breaking work, as well as the satisfaction of trying to bring some kind of dignity back to people who are unidentified and discarded.
“We’ve found bones that have not been interred in anything but a plastic garbage bag,” said Murchland. “We’ve also found full fresh remains in a full body bag that we have to remove from a wooden coffin.”
As the students dig, they cannot step on the graves. That could possibly damage any remains present. Instead, they often set up boards on the edge of grave sites to hang off of, in order to continue removing dirt by hand.
Sometimes the remains no longer resemble a body, but the students do not try to distance themselves from the understanding that the body parts belong to fellow humans.
“You understand that this is a person,” Murchland said. “In some way we do try and give each individual a moment of silence and flowers. We place flowers on every single individual that we exhume so that they are respected as they are brought out.”
Lori Baker, who is an associate professor of anthropology at Baylor University, founded the Reuniting Families Project in 2002, in response to the strained resources of border towns.
“The town that we are working in, Falfurrias, has four sheriff deputies and they have to do this kind of work for the entire county on top of the rest of the work that they do,” Baker explained.
In the void left by inadequate resources, Baker found a place to engage students and provide answers to families with loved ones who perished while attempting to cross the U.S. border.
“In the state of Texas, for unidentified remains, DNA samples are required under law to be taken and submitted to the University of North Texas to be uploaded into the national databases,” said Baker. “The problem is, that step often doesn’t happen.”
Another problem is, even when that does happen, the families of the deceased may not be in the database to find a match, or they may be hesitant to approach law enforcement to report a missing person because of their citizenship status.
Even when the family does come forward, problems may persist. Police may not take their statement because the family members are considered “internationals.”
“It’s very frustrating,” Baker said. “It’s a disaster of a system.”