WACO, Texas - A leading expert in forensic anthropology at Baylor University, Dr. Lori Baker has spent the last decade identifying forgotten remains of undocumented immigrants.
"Unfortunately, I don't have the skills keeping people alive. I just have skills identifying them," Baker said. "It would be wrong as a forensic scientist not to use those skills."
Over the summer, 18 of Baker's students joined her and lecturer Jim Huggins at a pauper's cemetery in Del Rio, Texas, exhuming six remains buried in unmarked graves, including a baby and perhaps its mother.
Baker said it was likely the first time university students have taken part in such an endeavor. "It was a life-changing experience," said Valerie Alvarez, a senior at
Baylor and a 2009 graduate of Samuel Clemens High School in San Antonio. "It was a test to see if I can actually deal with human remains." After graduate school, Alvarez said she plans to work in federal law enforcement.
Baker now is helping those students examine and analyze the remains they were able to bring back to Baylor, in hopes of identifying them.
Nearly ten years ago, Baker created a DNA data bank to aid the families of missing undocumented immigrants.
She said since then she's been working with the Mexican government and medical examiners along the U.S. border.
Baker said her program, "Reuniting Families," has resulted in at least 70 remains being returned to their loved ones.
The Baylor associate professor said those family members often tell her, "Now I have a place to pray."
Baker said the university's leadership has been supportive of her work in light of what she called "a huge humanitarian crisis."
However, Baker said her life's mission has been questioned at times, "Why is this being funded? Why is this being done?"
She said no federal taxpayer funds are involved to avoid the perception her secure DNA data bank is used by the government for tracking purposes.
Baker said her students even paid their own way to travel and conduct their research in Del Rio.
"We have a lot of students who are mission-minded," Baker said. "They want to go out and make a difference in the world."
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