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New Database Helps Families ID People Who Died Crossing the Border

I Have a Name/Yo Tengo Nombre offers a devastating glimpse of those who are gone—and a glimmer of hope to those who want to find them

South Texas is among the most inhospitable places to cross the border—and is now the most popular. (Vallarie E./iStock)
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The promise of life in the United States led about 170,000 people to cross the border illegally in 2015. But those crossings aren’t always successful: This year alone, at least 409 people are thought to have gone missing or died while crossing the U.S./Mexico border or evading immigration officials after entering the U.S. Those people may die in anonymity, but they are not always forgotten. As Yara Simón reports for Remezcla, a new project is helping families of the missing identify the dead using the items they leave behind.

The project is called I Have a Name/Yo Tengo Nombre, and it was recently launched by The Texas Observer. The searchable, bilingual visual database lets people scour personal items of unidentified dead people found with personal items in Brooks County, Texas. The South Texas area is among the most treacherous places for those who immigrate illegally—it’s been dubbed “Death Valley” for migrants and is considered especially dangerous because of its scorching temperatures and inhospitable conditions.

The database is the brainchild of two forensic anthropologists who have spent the last several years exhuming the bodies of people buried in mass graves after dying during their migration and returning them to their family members. One of them, Baylor University’s Lori Baker, exposed irregularities in the burials of such people, including burying people in trash bags and collecting money for DNA investigations of the remains despite no evidence that the investigations ever took place.

Now Baker and her colleagues have set up a database of items like rosaries, backpacks and torn shirts for family members and friends of missing people to scour through. So far, they’ve photographed personal items from approximately 80 cases. People who identify the items can flag a match; then the cases will be confirmed through DNA testing or dental records.

I Have a Name/Yo Tengo Nombre is a sobering reminder of the fates that await so many border crossers, but it also represents hope for those who have never heard from their loved ones again. As Forrest Wilder, editor of The Texas Observer, writes, it was crowdfunded by more than 120 people and has already enabled one identification, which took place when a child’s drawing was linked to a missing person’s ad in Ecuador as the project was being put into motion.

Texas isn’t the only state where researchers are working to ID those who died crossing the border. As Danyelle Khmara reports for the Arizona Daily Star, an immigration rights nonprofit in Arizona offers a DNA database, while multiple agencies patrol both sides of the border to exhume the remains of those who died. (Until recently, the state was the most popular place for illegal border crossings.)

Will scouring the database help identify the missing or just raise awareness of what border crossers leave behind? Either way, the project aims to show the power of passionate people—and the importance of documenting the remnants of those who no longer live.

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