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Lack of Money Hinders Effort to ID Remains of Migrants Near the Border

The Texas Forensic Science Commission discussed the progress it has made in identifying the hundreds of remains found in border counties since 2010.

Dr. Sheree Hughes-Stamm, a member of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, is shown during a Oct. 5, 2016, committee hearing in Austin.

Shoestring budgets and bureaucratic hurdles are preventing some of the state's top researchers and forensic experts from identifying hundreds of the remains found on or near the Texas border, members of the Texas Forensic Science Commission said Wednesday.

During its quarterly meeting in Austin, the commission discussed the progress it has made in identifying the hundreds of remains found in border counties since 2010.

In 2015, state lawmakers tasked the commission with implementing a plan to streamline the process of identifying remains that belong to undocumented immigrants who have died in the border region after illegally crossing into Texas.

While the remains of about 60 bodies have been identified and at least seven repatriated, hundreds more remain a mystery, said commission member Sheree Robyn Hughes-Stamm, an assistant professor of forensic science at Sam Houston State University. She said that is in part because of how and where biological information is stored. 

“This major limitation, why this is so low, is because we don’t have access to those reference samples,” she said, referring to the more than 2,000 samples of genetic material provided by family members to help establish a tie between them and the deceased.

The reference samples are taken as part of a joint effort between the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, or EAAF, a nonprofit, nongovernmental entity that conducts forensic analysis and human rights work, and BODE, a private company. The actual biological information from the remains found, however, is stored in an FBI database.

The problem: “Those two don’t talk to each other,” Hughes-Stamm said.

“The FBI are the custodians of the [domestic] DNA database, and they’re the ones that have to agree that the criteria are met, that they can accept into the database,” she said. “We don’t want to put the quality of the database in jeopardy.”

To remedy that, the commission is preparing a memorandum of understanding that will be sent to foreign governments in Mexico, Argentina and Central America to ensure that all parties are using the same collection methods and not compromising the integrity of the FBI’s database.

“There were also some issues with the consent language and consent forms and the environment in which some of the samples were collected," Hughes-Stamm said. [For example], there was no law enforcement or criminal justice presence.”

The other challenge is the funds counties have available to perform autopsies or train non-medical examiner justices of the peace to examine bodies more closely.

In the 32 counties the state designates as “border counties” there are 170 justices of the peace who have the authority to determine cause of death and sign death certificates. If a cause of death is incorrectly determined or a body is buried or cremated, it might never be identified.

“Sometimes the JPs don’t go to the site and don’t look at the body. They just make the call from the office,” said Lynn Garcia, the commission’s general counsel. “The autopsy is obviously the gold standard in terms of making sure all the data is collected. But some of the counties do not have the money to do an autopsy.”

Some of the counties can’t afford toxicology tests after car wrecks involving their own citizens or even send the justices of the peace to annual conferences.

“The argument is, why are we having to fork out and slim down and find money for all of the migrants when we can’t even do an adequate job for all of our citizens?” said Hughes-Stamm. “And we are sensitive to that, we understand that.”

That problem isn’t as easy to fix because it’s out of the commission’s purview. What the entity can do is make recommendations, but ultimately it is up to the county commissioners to set budgets and decide how to allocate resources.

Commission member Nizam Peerwani suggested Wednesday that the state’s medical examiners pitch in and offer to do some of the autopsies on a pro-bono basis. Peerwani, the medical examiner in Tarrant, Parker, Denton and Johnson counties, said he’d be willing to take 20 or 30 himself.

“We go out all over the world and do pro bono autopsies. In our own state we don’t do that? It’s shameful,” he said. “It’s a humanitarian issue.”

While the pro-bono effort would have to be something the medical examiners decided on their own, Hughes-Stamm said, the idea is something the commission can encourage.

“That’s not something the commission can enforce, but it’s something that we can recommend. And that’s something that has been discussed,” she said. “It’s a good idea.”

Read some of our related coverage

  • The Texas Supreme Court could rule this month in a case that that is likely to weigh in on the rights of private-property owners whose lands are traversed by undocumented immigrants.
  • U.S. Sen. John Cornyn has released a new video and an accompanying opinion piece describing the hundreds of migrants found dead every year near the Texas-Mexico border. But advocacy groups say Cornyn is part of the problem.

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