Every year, hundreds of thousands of people attempt crossing the Mexican border to enter the U.S. illegally. Some never make it. Their remains are found in remote desert areas, where their journey and stories end. Sharyl Attkisson visited one Arizona morgue, where forensic science is being used to identify the missing.
Dr. Gregory Hess, Chief Medical Examiner, Pima Co. Arizona: Since about 2001, we've had the largest number of undocumented border crosser deaths for any single jurisdiction in the U.S., and so we've had a lot of experience with examining these kinds of remains. The problem is that they're unidentified. So we don't know who they are. These two whiteboards represent the left side of our cooler and the right side of our cooler. We can hold about 125 full-sized remains in our indoor cooler.
Sharyl Attkisson: And how do you mark or designate the ones who may be undocumented border crossers?
Dr. Hess: With blue outline. So if you see the blue marker right here, those are individuals, especially on the right-hand side, that we believe are likely undocumented border crossers.
Sharyl: A great deal of effort goes into and a lot of respectful effort goes into trying to identify who these people were?
Dr. Hess: There is. Essentially, this is where we store the majority of our remains. Many of the remains to the right side of the cooler, the direction I'm facing, are people that we believe to be undocumented border crossers. As you can see some of these bags are not full bodies. Here we have some remains that were recovered actually back in 2013. We have a single, weathered portion of a mandible. So we can tell that this bone is human and it may have been buried at one point, but then became on the surface of the desert and, you know, this may (be) all we have to try to determine who this person is. Best case scenario is that we'll take DNA from that mandible and someone may be looking for that person and our DNA will match to a database someplace. More likely, we may not identify who that person is.
Dr. Hess: So this is the room that we keep property (in). In this particular locker, we have unidentified people from 2015.
Sharyl: How successful are you at identifying these unknowns?
Dr. Hess: So it's actually pretty good. We've had about 2,500 unidentified remains since 2001, of people we believe to be foreign nationals. We've identified about 1600-1700 of those. So it's about sixty-five percent.
Sharyl: That's pretty amazing, right?
Dr. Hess: Yeah, it's pretty good, but that still leaves us with 800-900 individuals that we have not identified, and essentially the odds of us identifying someone are directly proportional to the conditions of the remains when they come in, and whether or not they have any personal effects with them.
Dr. Hess: So all these plastic sleeves are various mixtures of property that we'd have with someone. We can show to foreign consulate staff, to the Border Patrol, to whoever is ever interested, what was found with these remains and it can assist us in trying to identify a person. This is an individual we found in 2015 and on his person he had some personal effects, including: this watch, which still appears to be working; this kind of faded, looks like a Levi's wallet; some Mexican currency, both coins and money; some photographs. Just because somebody has personal effects doesn't mean that it's that person, because people travel under aliases quite frequently, and they may have just flat out false ID's.
Sharyl: So what is the key when you're able to identify somebody that was carrying a fake identity? What's the key to figuring out who that was?
Dr. Hess: Finding family, because if you have a family, you can compare a family reference sample to the remains that we have to determine if they're related. Here we have some nail clippers, an anti-fungal (medication). Little prayer cards are common.
Sharyl: Does it ever make you sad? The idea that someone's life boiled down to this and nobody even knows when they died?
Dr. Hess: Sure, but you know for us, it's more of an objective, kind of clinical perspective because this is what we do. So we try to, you know, approach it professionally and try to get this person identified.
Dr. Hess: These are human skeletal remains of somebody that we believe to be an undocumented border crosser.
Sharyl: Did these come in recently?
Dr. Hess: Early this year, probably in January. Our anthropology staff can look at bones like the femur and determine approximately how tall this person is. If you have the pelvis, they can tell, maybe 95% of the time if it's a man or a woman. We know this tooth on the left side of the jaw is missing, and we know it was missing before they died because the hole filled in with bone. So that's the kind of information they would gather from these skeletal remains, and then we could say we're looking for a male between the ages of 30 and 40 years old that is approximately this tall and had died approximately six months ago. We would attribute this person's death to undetermined causes. Basically, we don't know. Likely, based on the location that these remains are found, the death is probably environmental.
Sharyl: This office is a tremendous indicator of what's going on at the border?
Dr. Hess: We handle more of these remains than other people do. 2010 was our busiest year with 225 remains recovered that year. The number of undocumented border crosser deaths appear to be a direct result of the way the border changed in terms of enforcement in the mid-1990's, where they made it much more difficult to cross in the United States in major population areas. The regions that people cross in can be very remote areas and again, it's a very dry, hot environment. If something does go wrong with your plan, the van doesn't show up where you're supposed to be picked up or you are trying to evade capture and get lost, your margin of error can be very small because it's just too hot and you may not have enough water.
Commander Paul Beeson, Chief Patrol Agent of Tucson Sector, U.S. Customs and Border Protection: We are of course very concerned about human life, and we're going to do everything we can to preserve and protect human life. We have a number of programs in place to respond in those instances when migrants get into trouble when they cross through some of these desert environments. Ultimately, the smuggling organizations and these people make these decisions to cross in these areas. They put themselves at risk. The smuggling organizations put them at risk.
Dr. Hess: So the people that have died, they've died. There's nothing that you can do for them any longer. But we're still collecting information on cause of death and manner of death so that we know under what circumstances people die, so that people can make decisions, like public health decisions on what they need to do to decrease deaths. Or if somebody's unidentified, it's to help family members find closure. The death investigation system exists to serve the living.