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The Intersection of Science and Sympathy

Publication Date: 
Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Border Patrol agents don’t wear white lab coats. But some of them are now on the front lines of helping scientists solve forensic mysteries arising from the dangers inherent in trying to cross our borders illegally.  

USBP personnel help analyze a 911 call, using the caller’s description of their surroundings to narrow search location.
USBP personnel help analyze a 911 call,
using the caller’s description of their
surroundings to narrow search location.

CBP has rescued nearly 11,000 undocumented alien migrants since September 2012 in our Southwest border region. Approximately 1,300 more, unfortunately, have lost their lives in the harsh desert or mountainous conditions – often deliberately left behind by the “coyotes” who profit from human smuggling. For these migrants’ loved ones, there are heartbreaking questions: Where are they? What happened to them?

The Missing Migrant Initiative (MMI) works with foreign consulates; other federal agencies; state, local, and tribal authorities; non-governmental organizations (NGOs); and families to locate and identify missing and suspected deceased undocumented aliens and to offer their families the opportunity to claim their remains. The MMI serves as an information “clearinghouse” for third-party reports of migrants who are missing or deceased.

MMI is an outgrowth of the Border Safety Initiative, which seeks to save the lives of migrants when they find themselves in peril. CBP’s Southwest Border Patrol Sectors – Tucson Sector, Laredo Sector and Rio Grande Valley Sector – have all joined in this important effort.

Many migrants who cross the border illegally reach out to family or friends when they need assistance instead of calling 911, Border Patrol, or other authorities. Those loved ones then contact multiple government and non-government entities to request help. This can confuse or delay the coordination of search, rescue, and recovery operations.

A special team of Border Patrol agents analyze and cross-check information reported from NGOs, local residents, county medical examiners and foreign consulates to ensure rapid dissemination to appropriate agencies. Fingerprints, DNA matches with family members, and other biometric evidence is key to these investigations.

County Coroners’ Offices provide USBP with biometric information for entry into immigration and criminal databases.
County Coroners’ Offices provide USBP
with biometric information for entry into
immigration and criminal databases.

In September, Rio Grande Valley Sector agents, for example, coordinated with the Cameron County forensic pathologist and Mexican authorities to identify the remains of a Mexican man – little more than hand fragments – found nearly two years ago in Harlingen, Tex. Some of the victims are society’s most vulnerable: children and teens. One such case involved a drowning victim, later identified through fingerprints as a 16-year-old boy from Zacatecas, Mexico.

In Arizona’s Pima and Maricopa Counties, Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector has received more than 100 requests for help in identifying remains from the County medical examiner; roughly half these subjects have been successfully identified thus far.  

The journey north for these migrants – many of them traveling with young children or even minors traveling alone – is fraught with danger and uncertainty. Human smugglers often place these people in perilous situations, and too many lose their way – and, often, their lives. As part of the Missing Migrant Initiative, CBP is committed to helping families find answers to their questions and, hopefully, peace.

Last modified: 
March 13, 2017