How officials identify deceased immigrants found along US-Mexico border

‘These are the cases that offer the biggest challenge,’ medical examiner says

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SAN DIEGO – In the eyes of many immigrants who cross into the United States from Mexico illegally, the journey into America is well worth the risk.

The trek, however, can sometimes be deadly.

"These are the cases that offer the biggest challenge. They have not been identified," Julio Estrada said.

Estrada, a supervising medical examiner investigator for San Diego County, said some immigrants who died over 30 years ago are still being identified.

"This person was discovered in 1984," Estrada said.

From local cases to those involving undocumented immigrants, Estrada has been examining bodies for more than 20 years.

When it comes to identifying undocumented immigrants who were found dead near the California-Mexico border, the challenges begin well before the body arrives at his facility.

"Personally, I have retrieved descendants from Mexico, in a rural area that it requires half a day of hiking," Estrada said. "If we find someone in a remote, rural or (in the) city area in proximity of the border, then we can consider the possibility that this person came across (the border)."

While every case for the San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office is different, Estrada said they treat every one of them with the utmost respect.

"Once we encounter these remains, we check a number of times, a number of layers of clothing that people remove depending on the weather. Indications of phone numbers, documents from different countries," Estrada said.

Estrada said the medical examiner’s office works with the U.S. Border Patrol and the Mexican Consulate to identify the deceased undocumented immigrants.

"When we have a person that might be undocumented, (Border Patrol) comes to our office and they help us with fingerprints," Estrada said.

With technology advancing every day, he said it is helping the San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office in identifying bodies faster.

"We are able to obtain better images that we can focus on them that we didn't see on the scene. We have new cameras, tattoos that we will not see (and) we have GPS technology," Estrada said.

For Estrada, he hopes to identify more bodies to give families the closure they desperately need.

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