Reuniting Families database project uses forensic science to reunite Mexican families with remains of deceased relatives

December 4, 2003
Anchor: Madeleine Brand
Reporters Steven Cuevas
Copyright 2003 National Public Radio

To listen to the story on NPR, go to http://www.npr.org/features/feature.php?wfId=1532371.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few moments, danger lurking under the mistletoe? Some advice to help you avoid common holiday health hazards.

But first, a story from the Texas border, where every year the US Border Patrol recovers the bodies of scores of undocumented immigrants, people who have died while trying to cross the border illegally. Since 1998, roughly half of the bodies had no identification. Now a forensic scientist at Baylor University is trying to match these unknown dead with the families they left behind. From Austin, Steven Cuevas reports.

STEVEN CUEVAS reporting:

You might think a forensics expert should look hardened or world-weary. Lori Baker is neither. She's easy going, quick to laugh, and can't stand the sight of blood.

Ms. LORI BAKER (Forensic Anthropologist, Baylor University): Things from live people really give me the willies.

CUEVAS: Baker is a forensic anthropologist. Her subjects have been dead for months and, in some cases, centuries. In her lab at Baylor University in Waco, a line of skulls from animals thousands of years old sit atop a long counter. Near them lies a more recent find, a child's mud-caked clothes. Baker has them spread out on a table as if the child had just been lying in them. Over the hum of a large refrigerator that holds dozens of DNA samples, Baker says the clothes probably belong to a 13-year-old boy who died trying to cross the border.

Ms. BAKER: His clothes are all hand-made, so somebody loved him a great deal and probably made these things for him for his trip. He was found with this backpack that was full of empty water bottles. And it's a bit of a unique backpack. It has a soccer player on it representing the Pumas, which is a Mexico soccer team. So what we're in the process of doing now is doing DNA analysis, but we don't have any family to compare it to, so that'll just be another set of data that we hold on to until we can find some family members.

CUEVAS: What did you extract the DNA from?

Ms. BAKER: From his skeleton. I can show you it over here.

CUEVAS: From a tall cabinet on the other side of the lab, Baker pulls out a cardboard box. Inside is a pile of pale yellow bones.

Ms. BAKER: He's immature, you can see by looking at his bones. What typically happens is people go in groups, and then something happens, someone becomes lame. Maybe they hurt their ankle or their leg, and they're not able to travel with the rest of the group. And the smugglers that help bring people across always promise to go back, and that rarely happens.

CUEVAS: DNA analysis from the boy's skeleton, along with dental X-rays and photos of his clothes and backpack, are now part of Baker's online database which goes online later this month. Relatives of missing immigrants can search the Web site themselves. They can also submit their own DNA samples to Baker, who will cross-reference them against the hundreds of samples that will eventually be listed in the database.

Most immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border either carry no ID or someone else's ID. Getting caught by border patrol using your real identity could mean jeopardizing any chance of obtaining a work visa or citizenship. It also makes it impossible to correctly identify the dead. In Texas, paupers' graves dot parts of border counties. Bobby Contreras is justice of the peace in Hidalgo County. He says about three to four dozen immigrants are found dead every year in his precinct. Most are washed up by the currents of the Rio Grande River. He explains how a family tries to find a missing relative.

Mr. BOBBY CONTRERAS (Justice of the Peace, Hidalgo County): What they do, the people from Mexico, they'll contact the authorities here in our port of entry in Hidalgo and say, 'Look, my son's been missing, and he was supposed to be at this location.' And they in turn contact the embalming company. You know, they keep the body at least for a week or 10 days, I believe.

CUEVAS: Are many families in your precinct there able to recover their loved ones?

Mr. CONTRERAS: Not to my knowledge, sir.

CUEVAS: That doesn't happen too often.

Mr. CONTRERAS: No, sir.

CUEVAS: Lori Baker is depending on counties like Hidalgo to provide her with DNA samples of the dead, and to tell families about the database project. There's already been one match. It was Rosa Cano, a 32-year-old Mexican national. She was a mother of two, trying to make her way to the Pacific Northwest. Baker made the match with DNA sent in by Cano's mother.

Ms. BAKER: And I'm completely surprised that we've already had one positive identification. I really expected the first five years, we might not have anything like that. It was worth doing just to find one family that we were able to help.

CUEVAS: Baker is hoping to raise about $800,000 to fund the database project over the next three years. She's not seeking federal or state funds for fear the database could be used to track immigrants. The project, called Reuniting Families, can be found at reunitingfamilies.org. For NPR News, I'm Steven Cuevas in Austin.

BRAND: This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News.