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In Texas, A Database Of Exhumed Objects Aims To ID Migrants Who Perished

Case 0408: The remains are presumed to be male, aged 35 to 56, and were found on Nov. 3, 2009, on the Coldwell Ranch in Brooks County, Texas. They were exhumed from the Sacred Heart Cemetery on May 26, 2013.
Courtesy of The Texas Observer
Case 0408: The remains are presumed to be male, aged 35 to 56, and were found on Nov. 3, 2009, on the Coldwell Ranch in Brooks County, Texas. They were exhumed from the Sacred Heart Cemetery on May 26, 2013.

He is known only as Case 0408. The remains of a middle-aged male immigrant were discovered in Jim Hogg County, Texas, on Nov. 3, 2009. Six belongings are the only things in the universe that may help identify him: a beat-up sneaker, a size L pullover shirt and hoodie, a ring found sewn into the waistband of his pants, a red and black lucha libre wrestler's mask, and a stuffed smiley lion.

Case 0408 is one of about a hundred migrants who perish every year in the harsh, sweltering brush country of far South Texas trying to sneak around Border Patrol checkpoints. This is one of 80 cases featured on the website of The Texas Observer, the venerable progressive magazine published in Austin for the past 62 years. The idea is to create a small, searchable database where relatives can go to find photos of personal items associated with their missing loved one — a brother, sister, or son who trekked to el norte, never to be heard from again.

"I don't feel like I'm stepping over any boundaries," says Jen Reel, the Observer's multimedia editor who produced the project, titled I Have a Name . "I hope it serves as an example of what we can do as journalists, how we can take it to the next level of problem-solving."

Most of the remains featured in I Have a Name were found in mass graves in Sacred Heart Cemetery in the town of Falfurrias in Brooks County. The skeletons had been unceremoniously dumped into plastic trash bags, shopping bags and body bags, or deposited in the dirt of an open grave. A local funeral home was criticized for its disrespectful handling of the relics of the nameless migrants. The human remains and personal items were found by a forensic anthropology team from Baylor University when it exhumed the cemetery in 2014. They are now stored at Texas State University awaiting identification.

Reel says only one case has been solved. When she was building the database, she found a child's drawing that had a woman's name on it and a prayer mentioning Ecuador. According to the Observer:

"A Google search turned up a missing persons ad in a McAllen, Texas, newspaper from November 2013 — six months after the remains were found. Texas State University, working with the South Texas Human Rights Center, got in touch with the humanitarian organization that took out the ad, which in turn contacted the family. DNA testing confirmed the woman's identity."

The project's primary goal is to identify human remains so that a lost relative can be repatriated and a mourning family can find closure. The secondary motive of the project is to humanize immigration.

"I want us to be able to understand that when we talk about statistics involving immigrants, we're talking about human beings," says Reel. Of all the rosaries, jewelry, backpacks and clothing she photographed for the project, for her, the stuffed lion and the lucha libre mask stand out.

"It seemed to me that these were gifts that he was bringing to someone who was here in the U.S.," says Reel. "He must have been reuniting with family."

But Case 0408 never made it.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.