How The Texas Observer is trying to help identify migrants who died after crossing the border

Photo: AP

It was the baseball that stayed with her. 

Jen Reel, a multimedia editor for The Texas Observer, had been documenting the harrowing journeys that migrants make through the deep sands and thorny brush of south Texas. That work would become “Beyond the Border,” the award-winning 2014 series written by her colleague Melissa del Bosque and produced by the Observer and The Guardian. But on this day in 2013, Reel and del Bosque were at the lab of Lori Baker, a Baylor University forensic anthropologist. They saw researchers examining a backpack that had been found alongside human remains. Inside were typical toiletries—deodorant, tweezers—and a baseball. 

“It was very clean. It looked like it hadn’t been used. That baseball stuck with me for a couple of years,” Reel recalls. “The remains were of an assumed male, between the ages of 30 and 50. And you wonder: ‘Who is that baseball for?’” 

This year, when she managed to find a break between other projects, Reel took the natural next step for a photographer: She created a photo essay, which will run in the November issue of the Observer, a nonprofit, left-leaning, Austin-based publication that dates back to the 1950s. 

But now, Reel and her colleagues are trying to do much more than that.

 

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This baseball sparked a journalistic effort to help identify the bodies of migrants found in south Texas. Photo by Jen Reel, courtesy The Texas Observer.

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When Reel turned up at Baylor to take the essay shots, photo box in hand, she noticed the lab already had one. That’s because Baker, the forensic anthropologist, has made it her mission to identify the bodies found in South Texas—hundreds of them recovered in one county alone over the course of three years, many of them in mass graves, buried in shopping bags and garbage bags. Operating as the Reuniting Families Project, Baker and a cadre of mostly unpaid students conduct exhumations and recover bodies from funeral homes. They then clean the bones and take DNA samples, building up profiles of the victims, including stature, age, sex and ancestry. They also clean and document any clothing and personal items found with the individual. And they take photos of the objects.

But the list of obstacles to identifying bodies or returning belongings is long. Photos taken by the lab are not high-quality, Baker explained to me, and she says the federal database where the photos and other details are uploaded—the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs)—can be hard to use. Meanwhile, local officials in the US have often been strapped for funds to run autopsies or DNA tests, she faces bureaucratic hurdles in getting DNA samples from family members back in the home countries of the missing, and the missing person reports filed at foreign consulates often don’t make it into the US system. To date, the lab has identified about 80 bodies—but only three or four from Brooks County, the location of a series of mass graves. All told, the remains of 170 people have now been recovered in the county. 

“You’re talking about people who didn’t have a voice when they were alive, and have even less when they’re dead,” Baker said.

So Reel took an idea to her publisher: Could the Observer fundraise to build a browsable, searchable, and mobile-friendly tool that would allow families to view items found with remains, and make the connection to their missing loved ones?

 

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This rosary is among the belongings now held at a Baylor University laboratory where forensic anthropologists are seeking to identify migrants’ remains. Photo by Jen Reel, courtesy The Texas Observer.

 

Her bosses agreed, and a campaign is now underway for the project, I Have a Name/Yo Tengo Nombre, on the journalism crowdfunding platform Beacon. The Observer aims to raise $10,000 from the general public and $10,000 in matching funds from Beacon itself, which has pledged to spend $3 million on immigration-related projects on its site. The money the Observer raises would go towards paying an app developer, a photography/case logging assistant, and a Spanish translator (the latter two roles may be filled by one person.) As of Wednesday morning, the project was two-thirds of the way to its goal, with nine days left to the deadline.

If the fundraising target is reached, the next goal is to have the app live by summer. The Observer is working with consular officials, human rights organizations and other groups to develop “what-next” instructions for app users who think they’ve made a match. Separately, Baker is building relationships with officials in the US, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to try to overcome the bureaucratic hurdles to collecting DNA samples from families.

Strikingly, the Observer’s project is actually the second recent instance of journalists using their talents to try to address the problem of the unidentified dead. The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal News in September launched a tool, The Lost & The Found, that is also designed as a more user-friendly version of NamUs. But while the Observer effort is focused on migrants, the Reveal project seeks to match unidentified bodies with missing persons from all over the country. 

The Reveal data team, led by Jennifer LaFleur and Michael Corey, scraped data from the federal database and used it to build a website where users can browse and search image-centric entries for both the missing and the dead, side by side, to try and make a match. If they find a potential match, users are encouraged to click a button that submits this to the news outlet—and given advice on whether and how to contact authorities. Reveal stresses that it’s not contacting the authorities on users’ behalf. 

Austin-based staff journalist G.W. Schulz, whose reporting series accompanies the tool, describes the project as “the 21st-century version of what local TV stations have been doing for generations—call this public safety hotline if you have a tip.”

It turns out that one of the people on the other end of this particular hotline—Todd Matthews, the director of case management and communications for NamUs—isn’t convinced about the tool’s value. Though Matthews is himself a former factory worker who started as an amateur sleuth, he says there’s little sense in encouraging members of the public to try and make these matches, because most breakthroughs that don’t come from law enforcement come from families of the missing. So far, none of the roughly 20 potential matches he’s received have been useful, Matthews said. (He’s more optimistic about the Observer’s plans.)

Reveal’s editors acknowledge that the tool has some limitations. Some NamUs data is not public, so users of the CIR tool could find potential matches that NamUs would rule out. But, says senior editor Fernando Diaz, the couple of dozen wrong matches Matthews has received are “the nature of the beast.”

“Our dream was to be able to help somebody make a match and maybe not spend 10 years researching,” Diaz says. “We’re an organization focused on impact. We set out the goal early on: If we can help make one match, this is all worth it.” 

At the Observer, Reel and her colleagues describe their task in the same way.

“This is not journalism per se,” says Observer editor Forrest Wilder. “You could think of it as a service, and ultimately the reason we’re doing it is we hope to have an impact.” If any stories come from the app, they will be a bonus. 

“The fact that we have hundreds of people dying in our backyards in Texas and there is no closure for their loved ones is a human tragedy,” Wilder said. “If we can help in some way with our skills and expertise we want to do that.”

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Tamar Wilner is a Dallas-based freelance journalist and researcher who writes about misinformation, fact-checking, science communication, and all things media. She tweets at @tamarwilner.