Operation Identification has grim task of examining migrant remains

Federal law seen as first recognition of lives lost entering the U.S.

SAN ANTONIO – Locating the graves of migrants who died entering the U.S. illegally is the starting point for the grim, often complex task undertaken by Operation Identification at the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University.

Dr. Kate Spradley, a professor of anthropology and the director of Operation Identification, said she and her students have examined more than 300 remains recovered from cemeteries throughout South Texas since 2013, but only 43 have been identified.

“The fact that we have over 250 remains that are unidentified, I think speaks to the hurdles that are apparent in trans-national identifications,” Spradley said.

She said at least now, the recently enacted Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act is the first recognition of the loss of lives at the border.

“It’s a real foot in the door to do more,” Spradley said.

To help aid in the effort, the law provides funding to governments, nonprofits, humanitarian aid groups, medical examiners, and laboratories working to identify thousands of migrant remains along the Southwest border.

Spradley said the language was added with input from the Forensic Border Coalition, a humanitarian collaboration between non-governmental and governmental organizations.

“The new law provides funding to labs to increase capacity, buying more supplies and hiring more people, to expedite backlog,” Spradley said.

The bipartisan legislation also would help improve reporting missing migrants to CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System, and NamUS, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons Systems.

“They are very good systems and they work well for U.S. citizens,” Spradley said.

However, Spradley said families in Mexico and Central America aren’t allowed to submit reports or DNA.

She said it also doesn’t address the larger issues of transnational data sharing.

Spradley said since the DNA database is proprietary to the FBI, “They are unwilling to allow that data to cross transnational borders.”

She said instead, Operation Identification has relied on the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team to help identify the remains.

“It easy for us because they work on behalf of multiple governments, Spradley said.

Known globally for its work, the scientific non-profit based in Argentina, a nominee for the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, was created after thousands disappeared during a brutal military dictatorship in the late 1970′s and early 1980′s.

“Everything that we do, we do for the families, we do to bring dignity to the unidentified remains,” Spradley said.

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About the Authors

Jessie Degollado has been with KSAT since 1984. She is a general assignments reporter who covers a wide variety of stories. Raised in Laredo and as an anchor/reporter at KRGV in the Rio Grande Valley, Jessie is especially familiar with border and immigration issues. In 2007, Jessie also was inducted into the San Antonio Women's Hall of Fame.

William Caldera has been at KSAT since 2003. He covers a wide range of stories including breaking news, weather, general assignments and sports.

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