Skip to content

Bringing up the Bodies

The forensic anthropologists who redress migrant death in Texas

On an early morning this past January in Eagle Pass, Texas, a group of women were on their knees in a six-foot-deep hole, shoveling dirt into buckets. The sky was still dark, so floodlights illuminated their work. They were precise with their shovels, holding them vertically out in front of themselves and shaving away lines of soil, rather than shoving them downwards into the ground like most of us do when we dig. After they filled the buckets to the three-quarters mark with gummy clay soil, they passed the buckets up to onlookers above them to be dumped onto mounds alongside the perimeter of the hole.

One of those standing on the edge was Kate Spradley. Dressed in army-green pants and a thin puffer jacket, she waved her arms to get the group’s attention. “What you have learned this week has prepared you for today, which is the lightning round,” she said.

What they would be doing at top speed was exhuming human remains. The women were forensic anthropologists with Operation Identification, or OpID, which is based at Texas State University and conducts exhumations across South Texas, seeking to identify and repatriate migrants who have been improperly buried after dying while attempting to cross from Mexico into the United States. The hole where they were working was located in the Maverick County Cemetery, a grass plot the size of a city block. It was so close to the U.S.-Mexico border that you could smell the Rio Grande—at least when you stepped away from the hole, which smelled like decomposition.

It was the last day of work; the team had exhumed fifteen bodies in the previous two weeks, and they believed there were four more still in the ground. By the end of the day, they would uncover them all, carefully lift them out, and perform “intake” procedures, which entailed removing their clothes and placing them in Ziploc bags, taking notes on any identifying features, and preparing them to be transported to the laboratory at Texas State.

Small Counties, Big Problems

OpID started in 2013 in response to the growing crisis of migrant death in the Texas borderlands. While people have long crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, migrant deaths in the borderlands have increased significantly since 1994. That’s the year the U.S. Border Patrol began to ramp up enforcement of common day-laborer crossing sites, an initiative that came to be known as “Prevention Through Deterrence.” Instead of deterring migration, however, the approach pushed routes into harsh, remote, and—at the time—less-patrolled areas.

Initially, routes shifted to Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. When Tucson’s Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, which also serves the state’s border counties, noticed the increasing migrant deaths, they developed a protocol for addressing them, including the creation of a nonprofit organization, the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, to work with families searching for missing loved ones. Since 2002, about two-thirds of the migrant remains recovered in Arizona have been identified—nearly twenty-five hundred individuals.

Over the course of the aughts, because of changing factors in Mexico and Central America, migration routes began to pass through Texas. In 2012, nine-hundred-square-mile Brooks County, located about seventy miles north of the border, replaced the Sonoran Desert as the epicenter of migrant death. Brooks is the site of a large inland Border Patrol checkpoint, which migrants can only circumvent on foot through hot, humid ranchlands.

Unlike in Arizona, the Texas borderlands are made up of small counties, most of which have no medical examiner. Instead, elected officials called “justices of the peace,” who have no medical training, determine cause of death and sign death certificates. Though Texas’s Code of Criminal Procedure requires inquests into all deaths of unidentified persons, it leaves ambiguity about what such an investigation must entail. One significant gray area is DNA samples, which the code states should be collected “as appropriate.” In practice, this step is often bypassed; justices were allowing county sheriffs’ offices to simply offload migrant remains to a funeral home for burial in local cemeteries, often without records of where they were interred.

For years, as bodies were discovered in Brooks County, the county sheriff’s office sent remains to local mortuaries for burial at the county’s Sacred Heart Cemetery. This largely escaped public scrutiny until late 2012. Then, as news outlets began reporting a “surge” of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America arriving at the border, local and national attention focused on migration—including on the deaths in Brooks County. Activists and journalists began reading the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure and raising alarm about whether the correct death-investigation protocols had been followed.

That’s where the forensic anthropologists came in.

Sorrow in the Borderlands

Originally from Arkansas, Kate Spradley didn’t know much about the border until, as a doctoral student in biological anthropology at the University of Tennessee, her advisor sent her to Tucson’s Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner to collect data from the remains of migrants stored there.

One of the reasons that Pima County was able to respond effectively to migrant deaths in Arizona was because they had an anthropologist on staff, Dr. Bruce Anderson. (Medical examiners are pathologists, trained to work with tissue; anthropologists work with bone.) Spradley was impressed by Anderson’s exceptionally high identification rate, despite having limited resources and working with a population for which there was very little data. He had previously worked at a well-funded Department of Defense laboratory involved in identifying missing-in-action soldiers. “And now here he was in this lab, one person, applying the same approach of ‘let’s do everything,’” Spradley said.

“There’s a before-TikTok and after-TikTok here,” Molly Kaplan told me.

After seeing Anderson’s work, Spradley decided she wanted to work in a border state. She landed at Texas State in 2008. OpID began five years later, after a call from Robin Reineke, cofounder of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights. A woman’s nephew in his early twenties had gone missing while crossing from Mexico. The guide had told her that he had left him behind in Brooks County and that the young man had a brown plaid shirt tied around his knee. The woman had driven to Brooks County and found his death report in the sheriff’s office’s case files, but they weren’t able to tell her where the body was.

Spradley and Lori Baker, a forensic anthropologist at Baylor University who had been working to identify migrant remains in Texas border counties since the early 2000s, contacted the county sheriff, who directed them to the funeral home. But the funeral home said they hadn’t kept records of where they buried the migrants. Hearing that, Spradley and Baker realized they were going to have to exhume a cemetery’s worth of unidentified remains.

In May 2013, Baker and another forensic anthropologist, Krista Latham, brought a group of students to conduct the exhumation at Sacred Heart (Spradley had to teach). They started with the most recent burials in the cemetery, which were mostly wooden coffins organized in a relatively orderly pattern. But during the last few days, they began to find remains in bags tucked between coffins. “That was our biggest surprise,” Latham said. “We had to go back and re-search areas with the understanding that not everything was in a coffin.” When they returned the next year, excavating an older part of the cemetery, it was even more disorganized. “It truly was an archaeological endeavor,” she said.

There were far more remains than the anthropologists expected. It took five visits to complete the exhumation. By the third, Spradley’s team had also gotten involved. Each time they visited, more and more people approached them with information about yet more unmarked burials.

In one case, a groundskeeper pointed out a site where he had forgotten to replace three markers after mowing the grass. They dug there, and instead of three, there turned out to be eight sets of remains. Later, a man driving through the cemetery tipped the group off without even stopping his truck. “He just slowed down enough to be like, ‘There’s a bunch buried right here, along the street,’” Spradley said. Right where he’d indicated, they found four or five small, custom-made boxes containing unidentified remains.

Another time, a woman approached Spradley saying, “My husband doesn’t want me to tell you this,” before continuing, “I couldn’t buy the plot next to my father because the funeral home told me that—she used the term ‘illegal’—‘illegal people were buried next to him.’” They went to the area next to where the woman’s father was buried and started to dig an exploratory trench. Immediately, they started to see depressions and soft soil—telltale signs of recent burials. They found two unidentified bodies right next to the father, as though the funeral home had simply taken advantage of the open hole to dispose of some remains. They kept digging in case there were more. In the end, they found twelve bodies.

By now, OpID has conducted exhumations in seven counties across South Texas. Between those recoveries and direct transfers from surrounding counties, they have 495 cases, 101 of which have been identified.

Little Scratches

In September 2022, a TikTok video depicting carelessly buried remains at the Maverick County Cemetery went viral. “These are the migrants that drowned coming over, and they weren’t able to get them into the medical examiner in Webb County because she is full,” the narrator claimed. “So they have buried them unembalmed in these graves.”

They disappeared many of the victims without a trace, using methods such as “death flights,” in which prisoners were injected with sedatives and then dropped from planes into the ocean.

Though OpID had planned to conduct an exhumation at the cemetery long before the video, the video had an impact on the ground. “There’s a before-TikTok and after-TikTok here,” Molly Kaplan, Spradley’s research assistant at OpID and a PhD candidate at Texas State, told me. The before-TikTok side included some of the most careless and disorderly burials the anthropologists had ever seen. Shelby Garza, another OpID member, told me that one individual had been “just thrown”—their legs were sticking up on the east side of the wall, with the rest of their body below in an L shape. Evidently, the local funeral homes had trusted that no one was watching.

The Maverick County exhumation was novel for OpID in other ways too. While the majority of individuals that OpID exhumes likely die of exposure to the elements, most of these people had drowned. They were also some of the freshest remains that the OpID team, who specialize in bone, had worked with. “The tissue was disintegrating in our hands,” said a master’s student named Amelia Konda.

They also had a good estimate of how many remains had been buried, and many had possible identifications already—whether because the individual was carrying ID, a witness had been present at the time of their death, or a family member had contacted the county looking for them. Some had even been fingerprinted by Border Patrol before being buried. “We had a kind of manifest here—a known number of remains and potential ID hypotheses. We had never had either of those before,” Spradley told me.

The twenty-six individuals buried in the cemetery came from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Syria. Some of the deceased likely planned to seek asylum. One had crossed to care for his ailing mother. The local funeral home ran out of space while waiting for the fingerprint results to come back, and so the bodies were buried without identification; now they had to be exhumed and identified, likely necessitating the use of DNA testing.

The previous afternoon, Kaplan and Garza had stayed behind with the cemetery’s two backhoe operators, a father and son team both named Valentín, as they dug the hole from which the team would exhume the final four remains.

Garza, who was four months pregnant at the time, had attended all of the team’s exhumations but one. She became interested in forensic anthropology as a community college student in San Antonio, after she was assigned an article about humanitarian forensic work in Iraq for a cultural anthropology class that inspired her to join the school’s forensic anthropology club. One day, Spradley came to speak to the club. When Garza transferred to Texas State, she reintroduced herself to Spradley and started to participate in OpID’s early work. Kaplan, meanwhile, grew up in Los Angeles, and came to Texas State from New York City, where she had worked with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. In her role as Spradley’s research assistant, she’s responsible for many of the logistics of navigating DNA labs and government bureaucracies.

The older Valentín, who only spoke Spanish, wore a turquoise plaid shirt, Wranglers, leather work boots, a straw hat with a feather, and a cross earring. He explained that he had grown up across the river, in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, and came to Eagle Pass when he was fourteen. He operated the backhoe, while his son stood by the hole spotting him. The younger Valentín wore laced work boots and a black zippered jacket; he had a Dallas Cowboys neck tattoo and a tiny rhinestone nose ring. Valentín Jr. yelled over the loud clanking and engine sounds to explain that when the elbow of the backhoe touched the ground, it meant the hole was six feet deep, and they should start keeping their eyes out for “decomp”—soil darkened by the microbial activity responsible for most of decomposition—and body bags.

When anthropologists see the black decomp layer, it means they’re probably coming to a body bag or some other kind of receptacle. What remains are buried in varies: if a funeral home has handled them, they’re usually in black body bags; others are buried in cardboard boxes, the kind generally used for cremation; still others are simply wrapped in plastic sheets. As Kaplan and Garza started to see cardboard, Valentín communicated to his dad to dig more lightly. “Por encimita,” he said, making a gesture with his hands, as though one were mimicking a tarantula crawling on the other, to indicate that the bucket of the backhoe should move gently across the surface of the soil. “Little scratches,” he added.

As the elder Valentín continued to dig, Kaplan, Garza, and the younger Valentín started to realize that the cardboard they were seeing wasn’t from the graves they were looking for but scraps from boxes exhumed during previous days. It was already 3:00 p.m., and it had taken an hour to dig the “sterile”—that is, bodyless—hole. But they were determined to find the other four remains. Extending the first pit north, they finally found the remaining graves—the ones that would belong to the “lightning round.”

De Buenos Aires para el Mundo

The history of humanitarian forensic anthropology starts with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team: “the world’s first professional war crimes exhumation group,” as Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman write in Mengele’s Skull.

“I ran back out there and looked at all the other personal effects,” said Spradley. It was a match. They’d solved the case.

In March 1976, a military government seized power of Argentina in a coup d’état. During seven years of rule, they abducted and murdered some thirty-thousand citizens in what came to be known as the “dirty war.” Many were young members of leftist organizations; others were ordinary people from rural regions where authorities saw a threat of Marxist insurgency. They disappeared many of the victims without a trace, using methods such as “death flights,” in which prisoners were injected with sedatives and then dropped from planes into the ocean. In 1983, days after the election that finally replaced the military junta, the new president created a National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons. The next year, following pressure from human rights organizations, the commission brought a team of experts from the American Academy for the Advancement of Science to Argentina to offer recommendations on how best to locate, exhume, and identify the remains of the country’s disappeared.

One of the invitees was Clyde Snow, a forensic anthropologist who had gained international recognition for identifying the remains of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele in Brazil—an investigation that, as Keenan and Weizman write, “helped consolidate the interdisciplinary process for the identification of missing people [that] has since restored the names and identities of thousands of bodies.” Snow suggested the creation of a specially trained interdisciplinary team that would conduct exhumations and identifications from start to finish, combining established practices from archaeology and biological anthropology with newer forensic approaches. But there was a problem: most Argentine archaeologists and scientists were too scared of state repression to sign up. And so, Snow’s translator, a medical student named Morris Tidball-Binz, suggested training a group of students. They met up in Snow’s hotel room, and Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense, or the EAAF, was born.

They started their work at the NN, or “No Name,” sectors of Buenos Aires cemeteries where activists and international human rights actors had long suspected that the remains of disappeared citizens were buried. Many of the remains belonged to people who had been killed at around the age of the students exhuming them.

As the word disappearance suggests, the military government had insisted that no abductions or murders had taken place. “Forced disappearance is the worst of the worst—it opens a wound and allows it to fester,” said Roxanna Altholz, codirector of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, who has provided legal representation to the EAAF. “Families are in anguish and are suffering until they have an answer.” The exhumations provide concrete evidence to support grieving family members’ claims. There isn’t a military government disappearing people in Texas. But when the legal protocols meant to facilitate a deceased individual’s identification aren’t followed, that lack of adherence enacts a form of disappearance. Part of the importance of OpID’s work, Kaplan told me, is the endeavor “to acknowledge that this person existed.”

Following the success of Argentina’s team, similar teams were created in Chile, Guatemala, Peru, Uruguay, and Mexico to redress disappearances by military dictatorships and war. The teams used EAAF protocols as a blueprint for managing their own cases and exhumations and have adopted its emphasis on working closely and respectfully with family members—sometimes even allowing them to be present at exhumations to provide closure. Meanwhile, the Argentine team, now a nonprofit with an office in New York, has worked in over forty countries applying forensics to mass atrocities. The team eventually started working in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands as an extension of their Mexico program. In 2013, Spradley, Reineke, members of the EAAF, and others gathered for a meeting convened by Arizona’s Binational Migration Institute and formed a group called the Forensic Border Coalition to coordinate their operations, including applying EAAF protocols to OpID’s emerging work.

Spradley had learned about the EAAF as an undergraduate at the University of Arkansas, where a professor took her and her class to the computer lab to learn how to use internet search engines, which were then new. The professor told the students to look up something they were interested in. Spradley searched for “forensic anthropology.” The EAAF came up. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t know people did things like this,’” she told me. “From that moment, I always followed them.” The opportunity to work with the team, then, made her feel “starstruck.” Now, she and the EAAF are close collaborators.

One day in 2014, they finally found the remains that had set everything in motion for OpID. Two undergraduates asked Spradley if they could volunteer for her. She told them she needed help washing clothes that had been removed from the remains brought back from Sacred Heart, which were stored in Ziploc bags. She could tell the students were disappointed with the task, but they were good sports: they took the bags outside, washed the clothes by hand, and hung them up on the laundry line.

Spradley stayed inside and scrolled through NamUS, the United States’ missing persons database, as she often did. She passed the profile that Reineke had called her about—the man with a brown plaid shirt tied around his knee. She saw it every week. But this time, she had a brown plaid shirt fresh in her mind’s eye. The students had just hung one up on the laundry line.

“I ran back out there and looked at all the other personal effects,” said Spradley. It was a match. They’d solved the case.

Ascending the Stairs

As the sun started to rise over the Maverick Cemetery, the horizon brightened with dramatic streaks of orange and fuchsia. The anthropologists began removing enough decomp to locate the final body bags. They used specific and unique terms for every aspect of their work: they “followed lines” and “chased bag”; they “gophered.” Even digging was “dirt management.”

Yet some argue that the rise of the human rights movement, of which humanitarian forensic work is part, has required major political sacrifices.

One crouched in a frog pose as she worked, face down over the grave with her hips turned out, one knee on each side of her work. A master’s student named Victoria Soto leaned on the edge of one of the graves and propped herself up by pushing against the opposite side of the hole with her feet. “Flexibility and planking are two key skills,” Spradley remarked. When the women got to the finer-grained work, they began using dustpans, handheld brooms, wooden tools resembling mortar and pestles. There were three types of trowels: the rectangular “margin trowel,” the diamond-shaped “pointed trowel,” and the “Japanese hoe.”

As the hole got deeper, another master’s student, Shelly White, volunteered—as she did every day it was needed—to carve stairs. As an undergraduate, White had participated in OpID’s early searches and exhumations in Brooks County. It made an impact on her; at lunch the previous day, she had rolled up her pant leg to show the others a tattooed desert scene of wild lavender, mesquite tree, and vultures found in the area.

The Eagle Pass exhumation was White’s first time back since she had spent five years as a contract archaeologist after graduating, working everywhere from Belize to North Dakota. “I’m really good at digging now,” she told me. In forensic work, she explained, you speed-dig because you have to exhume as many remains as possible in a given timeframe. “You’re looking for a giant plastic bag, and you’re not going to miss it.” In archaeology, you have to examine everything, as any tiny rock could be part of the history you are documenting. But going slowly, White said, means “you never end up in a six-foot hole without a way to get out.” Hence the stairs.

When the steps were ready, Spradley, Garza, and Kaplan descended into the hole and checked the exhumations’ progress. “You should try them, Caroline,” Kaplan said to me. I did. They were impressively sturdy—there was no give, just the sense of climbing into and out of the solid earth. Later, however, the stairs would become an emotional transition zone between the dirt management that many of the anthropologists thought of as “their element” and the more somber work of intake that was still to come.

At around eleven thirty in the morning, four of the anthropologists suited up in masks, sterile booties, and plastic aprons with long sleeves they duct-taped to nitrile gloves. They were the “dirty” people—those who would touch the body bags and the decomp surrounding them. They laid a white body bag next to the grave site. The outside of the bag has to stay “clean.” The people who have touched decomp can’t touch the bag; they can only set the body inside.

“One, two, three,” those in the hole said together with those above. The women in PPE lifted the body and set it on the white bag in one strong and swift motion. Everyone clapped. “That was beautiful,” those watching said, cheering them on as though they were soccer teammates. The dirty team climbed out and left the hole to the clean team, who came in to zip up the bag.

“You’re going to go up those beautiful steps,” directed Garza. They did, carrying the white-wrapped body suspended between them. But as they walked silently to the intake tent, the earlier camaraderie turned funereal.

The Intimacy of Discovery

After bringing up the bodies, the OpID anthropologists turned to the more intimate and emotionally challenging work of intake. It generally takes place in a tent for privacy. The structure’s synthetic material trapped the heat and exacerbated the smell. Still, they tried to stay upbeat, knowing there had hours of labor ahead of them. “I don’t even notice the smell anymore, I’m just one with everything,” said Soto.

The group started each intake by examining the deceased individual’s mouth. Next, they removed the individual’s shirt and looked for identifying features like tattoos or scars on their torso and back. Finally, they removed their shoes, pants, underwear, and socks, in that order. “I always apologize at this part,” Konda explained to me. They photographed each step and put everything into Ziploc bags to wash back at the lab.

Many of the anthropologists said the hardest part of the work is not handling the remains themselves but coming face-to-face with effects—the keepsakes, talismans, and handwritten lists of phone numbers that once represented the hope of a new life. During one intake, Konda grabbed a shoe and checked inside, since that’s where migrants often store important paperwork. She found an identification card. “I happened to look at the birthday. He was only two years older than me, and his birthday was around the time he probably drowned,” she told me. “He probably thought he would have made it by his birthday.” She added: “I learned that I can’t think like that because I’ll cry. Crying is OK, but I was not hydrated enough to risk crying in that hot tent!”

At Eagle Pass, the process was messier than what anthropologists were used to. The contents of migrants’ stomachs had been released, and with the remains relatively fresh, skin was still decomposing. It stuck to the clothes in moist strips; some of the skulls had skin on one side and not on the other.

Though their peppiness deflated, the anthropologists handled the work with tact and grace. Their composure was, in many cases, a personality trait that drew these women to OpID in the first place but also something they supported one another in learning. When Konda shared that she had had recurring nightmares over the course of the exhumation—one in which she needed to call 911 but couldn’t, and another in which decomposing bodies had come back to life—Kaplan told her solemnly, “We all have those dreams.”

It’s the ability to push through the emotional strain of the work that, Konda said, defines the team members. “You have to be able to be compassionate, but still work through it without being immobilized. It takes a special kind of person.”

The Final Cleanse

Several months after the exhumation, I visited OpID’s lab at Texas State’s Forensic Anthropology Research Facility. It’s located on a forty-five-hundred-acre working ranch, down a five-mile driveway lined with oak trees and wildflowers. There are butterflies, grasshoppers, cacti, and birds, along with cows and goats—part of the university’s agricultural programs—that traipse all over the property: I found manure on the lab building’s doorstep.

On the south side of the building, Soto and a volunteer were cleaning clothes from Eagle Pass. They scrubbed the decomp off with brushes and then started a cycle of washing: using a plunger, they stuffed each item into a bucket of water and detergent, pulled it out to scrub it more, and repeated as many times as necessary. They could tell things were clean when they stopped feeling gummy, Soto explained. Then they saturated the clothing with OdoBan to eliminate odors and hung the items up to line-dry, accompanied by a notecard with their case number.

While the Ziploc bags of personal effects had gone into the queue to be washed, the remains that came back from exhumation had gone to the ranch’s decomposition facility, a ten-minute drive further down the road, where they were laid out in body bags under the sun. Since it’s a research facility, the area is mainly used for decomposition studies on donated bodies, which are laid out naked, unbagged; OpID keeps its remains in bags under a separate metal-framed structure that Spradley calls the “mass disaster tent.”

“You have to be able to be compassionate, but still work through it without being immobilized. It takes a special kind of person.”

Gradually, OpID members bring the bagged remains from the tent into the lab to clean them and create their forensic profiles. The first step is to pick the bones out of the body bag. Laying in the Texas sun for weeks or months, the skin and other tissue will have disintegrated. “It can be soupy,” Spradley explained. Once they’ve pulled the bones out, they put them into a steel-walled kettle—the kind you’d see in an industrial kitchen—for maceration. They clean any remaining tissue off the bones with dentistry tools and a toothbrush at a nearby lab sink. Then, in the narrow osteology lab that doubles as OpID’s office, they lay out the bones in standard anatomical position. During my visit, a skeleton brought from Brooks County laid there, its head resting on a small, square purple pillow. Spradley moved one of the upper ribs from the left to the right side, correcting a student’s mistake. Then she started to point things out to me. She estimated the skeleton as that of someone young, because the scapula and pelvis don’t completely fuse until the middle of one’s twenties.

After completing the forensic profile, OpID’s lab manager creates a profile in NamUS and mails one of the small foot bones to the University of North Texas to be added to the FBI’s DNA database. Then they pack the remains carefully into a box and shelve them in OpID’s climate-controlled storage area to wait for their match alongside three hundred others that have yet to be identified.

Justice in Evidence

Forensic anthropology teams’ work has a profound social significance: it brings closure to suffering families. “[Families] cannot rest until they know what happened to their missing loved ones,” said Andrea García Borja of the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project. “Having an answer gives them a way to move forward, to start mourning and move forward from the search, [which] is incredibly exhausting, expensive, and that really consumes so, so, so much of their lives.”

This work also carries political and legal importance: forensic evidence can provide the grounds to hold governments and others who commit human rights violations accountable for their deeds. “Each time we retrieve the skeleton of a young person with a bullet hole in the back of the neck, it becomes more difficult to argue your way around it,” Clyde Snow told the Argentine newspaper Página/12 in 1993.

Yet some argue that the rise of the human rights movement, of which humanitarian forensic work is part, has required major political sacrifices. In Sovereign Emergencies, a history of the growth of human rights activism in response to military governments in Latin America, Patrick William Kelly explains that organizations and activists had to “rid [themselves] of radical politics” in favor of the “politics of empathy” that became the only way to effect any change. Many of the activists and anthropologists in Texas describe their work along these lines—as a humanitarian endeavor outside of politics. In such a sharply divided state, there are pragmatic reasons to present their efforts as apolitical. Texas’s unusual bureaucracy means that migration activists, Border Patrol, law enforcement, and local officials work closely together. Until 2022, when Texas channeled all border funding into the enforcement-centric Operation Lone Star, OpID even received funding from the office of staunchly anti-immigration Governor Greg Abbott. “We can work to change the system,” said Latham, “but if we make enemies of the people working in the same system, then we can’t do our job.”

At the same time, deaths in the borderlands are also depoliticized: media, enforcement agencies, and elected officials often frame them as unfortunate consequences of the decision to migrate or the result of smugglers who don’t value human life. It is migration advocates and humanitarian workers who argue to the contrary that the U.S. Border Patrol’s Prevention Through Deterrence strategy is a form of state violence analogous to the crimes endured by the victims forensic anthropologists have exhumed in Latin America and elsewhere. The Arizona organizations Coalición de Derechos Humanos and No More Deaths have stated that the policy “has turned the natural landscape into a lethal weapon that injures, kills, and disappears border crossers.” For her part, Kaplan said: “It’s structural violence and policy, not direct violence. But ultimately, it’s the same.”

At the federal level, both political parties support the type of immigration enforcement that activists say is responsible for migrant death, with its focus on security rather than safe passage. Few, if any, politicians are calling for the removal of the border wall, for the abolition of the Border Patrol, or for a truth commission to investigate Prevention Through Deterrence. Those politics remain on the horizon. But the work of forensic anthropologists is future-oriented in its own way: each identification they make helps build a historical record of what has happened.

“We can’t understand the impact of deterrence policies unless we document who dies in the desert,” said Altholz, the human rights lawyer. “OpID and the Forensic Border Coalition make it so that so many family members can find some measure of justice. And it’s justice they have delivered, not that the state has delivered.”

This story was completed with the support of a fellowship from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights.