This Online Database Helps Families Identify Those Who Died Trying to Cross the Border

Lead Photo: Personal items found with migrants in Brooks and Jim Hogg County, South Texas, Photos by Jen Reel
Personal items found with migrants in Brooks and Jim Hogg County, South Texas, Photos by Jen Reel
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Crossing the southern border into the United States is a dangerous, sometimes deadly journey. And it’s not easier for immigrants’ loved ones. As Central Americans and Mexicans risk death from dehydration and other elements, their families may never learn what came of them. This week, the Texas Observer launched I Have a Name/Yo Tengo Nombre – a bilingual online database that aims to give families closure. For the past year, forensic scientists Lori Baker and Kate Spradley have catalogued shoes, rosaries, jewelry, and other personal belongings in the hopes that someone can identify the items. The Observer‘s Multimedia Editor Jen Reel has photographed all the items, which may help in “unlocking the identity of dozens of unidentified migrants.”

In recent years, Texas has become the deadliest place to cross the US-Mexico border. In Webb County, medical examiner Corinne Stern performed autopsies on 105 dead bodies by October 1, 2016 – an increase from 2015, where she examined 105 bodies. But it’s more than 100 miles away – in Brooks County – where there’s been a surge in migrant deaths on the US side of the border.

In the mid-1990s, tougher immigration policies and the expansion of the Falfurrias Checkpoint pushed immigrants to take an alternate, and far more perilous, route. Trying to bypass the checkpoint, immigrants end up in the tough sand-covered terrain and thick brush in Brooks County. In the summer, it can reach 115 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Texas Observer. With more Central Americans fleeing gang violence back home, there’s been a rise in the number of people desperate enough to attempt this route. By the start of this leg of their trip, immigrants have already traveled for weeks.

After reporting on deaths in Brooks County, Texas Observer made an unconventional decision to launch a tool that may have real-life effects. The publication has already reported on how immigrants’ remains are mishandled, and how state and federal authorities provide little to no support. But reporting on this crisis made them feel they had to do more. Last year, the company launched a crowdfunding campaign, and more than 120 people donated money to make this project possible.

“DNA testing can confirm a person’s identity, but family members often don’t know what happened tot heir missing relatives,” Forrest Wilder wrote in a Texas Observer article. “The result is that the remains of hundreds of people – someone’s father, mother, sister, brother, child – are sitting in cold storage anonymously. I Have a Name/Yo Tengo Nombre is the Observer‘s attempt to help address the problem.”

Set against black and white backgrounds, Jen’s haunting and beautiful images tell the stories of those who died trying to cross the border.