Medical experts, aid workers and government officials have been coming together to bring comfort and closure to families after harsh desert environments claim the lives of border crossers.
There's a long history of illegal crossings along the nearly 2,000-mile border between Mexico and the United States. But after a dramatic increase in crosser deaths in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Pima County stepped in to track and identify remains recovered in the harsh Southern Arizona desert.
The County's Office of the Medical Examiner began tracking and identifying "Undocumented Border Crosser" (UBC) deaths in 2000.
In 2006, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported border-crossing deaths from 1995 to 2005 doubled those recorded from 1985 to 1995. The GAO's report said most of that was attributable to the "increases in deaths occurring in the Arizona desert."
The GAO report stated that 1994's Southwest Border Strategy intended to shut down traditional corridors to illegal immigration through increased enforcement and technology in sectors with the highest activity and to use natural barriers like the desert as deterrents. The GAO found the 1994 policy shift redirected migrant flows to eastern California and Arizona's Sonoran Desert.
"However, INS did not anticipate the sizable number of migrants that would continue to attempt to enter the United States through this harsh terrain," the report stated.
In 2000, Pima County received 74 UBC remains and another 77 the following year. In 2002, UBC remains increased to 147 and has remained in the triple digits every year since. From 2000 through May 4, 2023, the ME's office received 3,696 UBC remains, with 42 arriving since Jan. 1.
Pima County's Chief Medical Examiner Greg Hess said the increase spurred the county into action on tracking suspected UBC deaths.
"If you look at 1999, we had less than 20 of these remains recovered, and that's what it was before the year 2000 — less than 20 a year," he said. "We really weren't keeping track."
Hess added it was a big jump from less than 20 to 147 a few years later.
"People just weren't crossing here until starting later in the '90s and the 2000s," he said. "They weren't crossing here. They were crossing from Tijuana into San Diego or (Ciudad) Juarez into El Paso. They were crossing into major population areas."
And deaths increased with more illegal border crossings in the Sonoran Desert.
Pima County's medical examiner’s office receives remains from across Southern Arizona, including Cochise, Graham, Yuma, Santa Cruz and other counties.
Hess said he sometimes runs into confusion from the public about whether his office is out looking for the remains. He said his 40-person staff doesn't have the equipment to go out to many of the rural locations where anyone from Border Patrol and law enforcement to ranchers and aid workers discover suspected UBC remains.
"So, law enforcement is where it starts when somebody finds remains," Hess said. "Law enforcement will typically notify us. Many times law enforcement will have already responded to the scene where the remains are located and will have collected those remains."
Hess said the ME's office responds depending on the condition of the remains and distance from Tucson.
The county's staff begins examinations once the remains reach the ME's office, and what they can do depends on the condition when they arrive.
Conditions vary on a seven-point scale, from fully fleshed to complete skeletonization with bone degradation.
The majority of remains the county received since 2000 arrived fully fleshed (1,090) or decomposed (424). Fully fleshed remains typically have less than one-day postmortem intervals. Decomposed remains typically have less than one-week PMIs.
The county's five other body conditions vary among different levels of skeletonization. The ME's office received 2,179 suspected UBC remains since 2000 that fall into one of the five classifications — PMIs range from less than three weeks to less than six to eight months.
Hess found a common factor behind finding fully fleshed remains happens when someone in a group calls for help but it arrives too late.
"When we have someone who is in good condition like that, we can do a full postmortem examination," he said. "We can determine a cause and manner of death, and the odds that we end up positively identifying that person are high. We can learn a lot about them."
Hess said they could also take fingerprints when remains arrive fully fleshed.
In the 2022 Medical Examiner Annual Report, fingerprinting had the highest return for identification methods for 2018 through 2022. In 2022, fingerprinting accounted for 64 of the 80 identification made for the year. The ME's office received 173 remains in the 2022 calendar year.
Medical examiners could also use photographs and identifying marks to help provide an identification.
"The odds that they have some property or something that might provide a clue to who they are is much higher," Hess said about fully fleshed remains.
While finding money, possessions or ID cards could help, Hess found it's not always a sure thing. Sometimes, people might travel through different countries to reach the U.S., leaving them with money from a country they didn't originate from, or they could be traveling with forged or false documents.
Of the 3,696 UBC cases since 2000, the ME's office identified 2,360, or 64%, leaving 1,336 unidentified.
"The tools that we have available to us to identify an unidentified person are much more geared toward a suspected missing U.S. national than it would be a foreign national," Hess said.
He noted that most bodies the ME's office receives are not UBCs. He also said most foreign nationals wouldn't be in U.S. databases to make a match.
"It's just kind of a different concept," Hess said. "You have to work with the consulate from the country you might suspect the person might be from and try to get their help to look at identification cards and look for information about potential family members for that person."
A long history
Since 2000, the bulk of the 2,360 identified UBC remains came from Mexico, totaling 1,827 people.
Deputy Consul Lee Wong Medina at the Mexican Consulate in Tucson said there's a long migration history between the two countries.
"The truth is that here, between Mexico and the U.S., the Tucson sector has been a tragedy for a century where people die trying to cross regularly," he said. "And that's often overlooked because we're talking about the human phenomenon. If you go back 30 years ago, it was still the same — people passing away during their crossing. If you go back 60 years before, it's the same. And it doesn't matter which political narrative was out there — people were dying."
Medina said the Mexican government tries to warn migrants about the dangers of illegal border crossings, telling them they are putting themselves in the hands of organized crime that treats them as merchandise.
"There's no consideration whatsoever as to say, 'You're injured. You're just slowing down the group. We're going to leave you here in the middle of the desert,'" Medina said about traffickers. "And they tell them incredible lies like, 'We've already notified the consulate, and they'll be here in half an hour.' And people are just waiting the whole night in the cold of the desert or the heat of the desert."
The Mexican government also warns potential illegal border crossers about the Sonoran Desert's environmental dangers, especially people from tropical regions. Medina pointed to a recent joint press conference the consulate held with U.S. authorities to warn Mexican nationals in mountainous, humid states.
"And you're used to walking 30 minutes a day, and you're young, and you think you can make it — this is a completely different story," he said. "This is the desert. You're not accustomed to this, and it will take a toll on you, so don't even try it. And, in particular, we try to send the message out in the summer here in Arizona and Sonora."
The Mexican Consulate initially had a Tucson-based call center directed toward Arizona that began with Arizona's controversial Senate Bill 1070, passed in 2011, to provide information.
Medina said it worked well and is now a national call center — Centro de Información y Asistencia a Mexicanos (CIAM) — operating out of Tucson with a 50-person staff and running 24/7 to help families find a loved one who went missing during a crossing.
"The idea is precisely that," Medina said.
He said the consulate narrows down when and where the person was last seen and notifies that sector of the border.
The family information collected by the call center helps when trying to narrow down remains the ME's office collects and increases the chances of repatriating remains. Medina said repatriation also received help from Pima County, which no longer cremates remains.
Hess said from 2000-05, the county buried unidentified remains at the indigent interment cemetery in Tucson. From 2005-2018, he said the county cremated the remains.
But in 2018, the county shifted control of the remains from the fiduciary office to the ME's office. Now, Hess said the county no longer cremates the unidentified remains and instead stores them.
Hess said the current process is more cost-effective and a better practice when dealing with unidentified remains. He added keeping them in long-term storage increases the chances for repatriation later.
"And everybody feels better about that," Hess said. "So, they're going to get legit human remains. They may be skeletal remains, but at least it feels like they're getting a loved one back versus a bag with some ashes in it. You can see how that has a different feel to it."
Medina also appreciated Pima County ceasing cremations to increase the chances of providing families closure.
"Whenever someone goes missing, it's a lot of anxiety for a family," Medina said.
Although recovering remains signifies a worst-case scenario for many families, repatriation could offer some final comfort and closure, which Medina found better than the alternative.
"And it's bittersweet, but beyond the worst-case scenario is not having closure," he said. "So, whenever you can provide that certainty to the family that their loved one is with them again and they could say goodbye in any way they prefer, that they need — that's the least of the relief, but at least it's a relief."