Identifying missing migrants in Texas by the objects they carried

Objects from cases (clockwise from top left) 0361, 0408, 0365, and 0419 of the Yo Tengo Nombre project. Photographs by Jen Reel.
Objects from cases (clockwise from top left) 0361, 0408, 0365, and 0419 of the Yo Tengo Nombre project. Photographs by Jen Reel.



The website Yo Tengo Nombre/I Have a Name was launched at the end of 2016 to help the families of migrants identify loved ones who went missing after they crossed into the United States from Mexico. The site shows stark images of objects found with bodies of unidentified migrants—a pair of jeans, a running shoe, a teddy bear, a prayer card—in the hope that surviving family members will come forward to identify them.

The US Border Patrol estimates that more than 6,000 people died in the vast US-Mexico border region between 2000 and 2015.

No precise figures exist for how many people have died in the vast region which stretches across 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometres) miles east-to-west. Migrants try to hike around US Border Patrol checkpoints located up to 120 kilometres (75 miles) north of the border, and they often get lost in the desert and die from exposure.

Brooks County, Texas, is one of the deadliest areas along the border region. Texas authorities buried 300 migrants between 2008 and 2013 in a single cemetery in Brooks County—some in mass graves—without identifying them.

In 2013, a team of forensic experts led by Dr. Lori Baker, an anthropologist at Baylor University began trying to identify these remains. The bodies were taken to Texas State and Baylor universities for research. That work enabled the deceased migrants to be added to the US government’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).

Yo Tengo Nombre/I Have a Name takes another approach to identifying these migrants. Family members can search the site’s database of images, then contact the site if they recognise an object.

'Sometimes not even a full skeleton'

Eddie Canales, director of the South Texas Human Rights Center, is the contact person for Yo Tengo Nombre:

These objects belonged to unidentified bodies that were exhumed in 2013 and 2014 from Sacred Heart Cemetery in Brooks County, Texas. The Texas Observer, a magazine in Austin, approached Dr. Baker about creating a more accessible way for the families of migrants to find their missing loved ones.

“All that was left of these bodies were skeletal remains—sometimes not even a full skeleton. So the idea is to use the person’s belongings to identify them. The personal effects are washed and cleaned as best they can be, then a high-resolution photograph is taken by Jen Reel at the Texas Observer.

Each set of objects on the Yo Tengo Nombre site is given a case number, and each case represents an unidentified person. The person’s sex, date of recovery, and age is provided—although the age is just an estimate. There are 80 cases on the website, and the objects include everything from jeans and sneakers to toothbrushes, religious necklaces and stuffed animals.

Canales explained what happens when someone contacts the project to identify a missing person:

When someone gets in touch, I take in as much information as possible: who the missing person was, what they wore, where they crossed the border, if they had tattoos, scars, birthmarks, jewelry, what their shoe size was—anything that might distinguish them.

Then our forensic experts look for a reasonable match in our database. If it’s a relative, we take a DNA sample. We have religious counselors and social workers present when the family views the body.

'These families are seeking closure'

I can tell you that, when we’ve done an ID on someone where skeletal remains have been found, it’s emotional. These families are seeking closure. Often they have spent years looking, and they want to know what happened to their family member. If there’s been an ID, they want to see the body.

I remember one woman from San Luis Potosi, Mexico was looking for her sister. One object we had was a handwritten prayer on a folded-up piece of paper. As soon as that was brought out, the woman knew it was her missing sister: she had carried that prayer with her all the way from her home in Mexico.

Identification can go a long way towards giving the family closure. But the process doesn’t end there. In Texas, you have to amend an unidentified death certificate before the body can be removed from the state. The process can get bogged down in fees and legal processes. We’re trying to make sure families have a more expeditious way for families to repatriate bodies and have a funeral.

And there are still more bodies. They just exhumed another 24 in January from the same cemetery [in Brooks County].

We have to understand that these are human beings that have gone through agony and anguish looking for loved ones. It’s important not to get callous with so much death.