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Operation Identification

black and white photo of grave marker

Operation Identification

By Robyn Ross

Forensic Anthropology works to return the bodies of migrants to their families

A breeze rustles through Sacred Heart Burial Park in Falfurrias, ruffling the faded silk flowers and spinning the pinwheels that adorn the graves. Near a statue of an angel, its hands pressed together in prayer, a team of Texas State forensic anthropology students is hard at work.

Graduate student Molly Kaplan sits at the edge of a trench where her teammates are digging carefully, using ice cream scoops and clay sculpting tools, around the edge of a half-buried body bag. The plastic bag that holds the bones has partly disintegrated, and Kaplan’s partners hand her tiny toe bones they find as they sift through the dirt.

“This project is a balance between getting used to this work, but not being fully desensitized — because these are people,” Kaplan says.

For the past week, Kaplan and 22 other students, most of them graduate students in forensic anthropology, have been exhuming bodies of unidentified migrants buried in Sacred Heart. Basing their efforts on information from cemetery maintenance workers, tips from locals, and the team’s prior pedestrian surveys of the burial park, they’ve used ground-penetrating radar to search sections where migrants might have been buried without a grave marker. When they find a burial, they use photogrammetry — making measurements from photographs — to document the scene so they can reconstruct it digitally.

On this trip they’ll find 15 bodies, which will be transported to Texas State’s Forensic Anthropology Research Facility and Osteology Research and Processing Laboratory (ORPL), where the remains will be cleaned, analyzed, and stored until they can be returned to families in their home country. Most of the remains buried at Sacred Heart belong to migrants who crossed the border, 80 miles south of Falfurrias, and hit the brush to avoid detection at the Border Patrol checkpoint on Highway 281 just outside of town. The surrounding ranches in Brooks County are an inhospitable landscape of mesquite thickets and prickly pear that becomes even more difficult to navigate in the heat and humidity. Each year, many migrants don’t survive the journey, falling victim to dehydration and exposure. In 2017, at least 104 people died in the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley Sector, which includes Brooks County.

black and white photo of women working with skeleton on table
Chloe McDaneld (left) and Courtney Siegert (right) clean away tissue and dirt from #6070's skeletal remains to better analyze the bones and see all surface area.

From the early 2000s until as recently as 2012, Brooks County, overwhelmed by the number of dead, buried the remains in whatever corner was available at the public cemetery. Multiple remains, wrapped in body bags or even plastic trash bags, were placed in the same graves, along with the clothing and personal effects found on the deceased. No one tried to figure out who they were. These are the bodies that this team is exhuming and working to identify.

County officials often point to the migrants’ burial in the cemetery as a way to offer them dignity, says professor of anthropology Dr. Kate Spradley, the director of Operation Identification (OpID). “I hear, ‘What more can we do for them?’ ” Spradley says, adding that she doesn’t fault the county for being short on resources in a mass disaster. “That’s why we’re here, because we know what more we can do for them. We can use our anthropology skills. We can collect DNA samples. We can collaborate with other individuals who are collecting DNA from families, and we can work toward identification.”

Today, the bodies of migrants found in South Texas are sent to the medical examiner in Laredo for autopsy. The remains are then sent to the University of North Texas, which conducts a forensic anthropology analysis and enters a DNA profile in the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.

In 2013, Texas State began collaborating with other universities to exhume bodies from South Texas cemeteries, analyze the remains, and try to return them to the person’s family. The university now leads the exhumation efforts, and since 2016, all exhumed remains have been sent to its forensic anthropology labs for analysis.

Spradley estimates at least 150 students have participated in some aspect of the work. 

“I started volunteering as early as I could because I love this work,” says graduate student Shelby Garza (B.S. ’17). “We have to bring in all the subfields of anthropology, like cultural and forensic archaeology. It’s very holistic, and it’s got a large humanitarian aspect to it.”

Once remains are exhumed, the team does an initial inventory on site. Students open the body bags to assess the condition of the remains and scour them for clues to the person’s identity: a tag with a date written by the funeral home, a shoe with an identification card hidden inside it, a child’s drawing with a name. Photos of the migrants’ clothing and personal effects are posted to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) so that families missing a loved one might recognize them.

When the remains are brought to the ORPL, located at Freeman Ranch, students clean the bones and prepare them for analysis. The team analyzes the skeleton for clues to the person’s identity. By comparing the migrant remains with other skeletons, such as those from the department’s collection of donated bodies, the students can determine the person’s approximate age, ethnic background, and sex. The bones are measured to calculate height, teeth are counted, and any distinctive conditions are noted. All information is recorded in NamUs. Once the remains have been analyzed, the bones are stored at the lab — 270 boxes and counting — until they’re identified.

In the past five years, OpID has identified 30 people. Some identifications occurred because the missing migrant’s DNA was found to match a family member’s sample via CODIS. Other times, the family of a missing person recognized an article of clothing in NamUs. In still other cases, the migrant’s personal effects included a name or phone number, which led the OpID team to develop a hypothesis about the person’s identity.

OpID teams continue to clear South Texas cemeteries of unidentified migrant burials. Spradley accepts a limited number of undergraduate volunteers for trips like the one in January to Falfurrias. One of the five students is anthropology major Ana Figueroa Yanez. Born in Mexico, she moved to the United States at age 10 when her mother successfully applied for permanent residency. Figueroa, now a U.S. citizen, says she feels a connection to the migrants.

“They were trying to do what my mom did for us — in a different way. At the end of the day they had the same goal,” she says. “The very first day of excavation we found some remains, but as soon as we hit that box, I had a feeling of, ‘We’re here for you. We found you. Don’t worry, we’re going to get you out, and we’re going to try our best to help you.’ ”