Preventing a third death: Identification of missing migrants at the US-Mexico border

Sara H. Katsanis, Katherine M. Spradley

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This chapter examines the challenges of identification of migrant remains at the US-Mexico border, highlighting the logistical and ethical considerations for cross-border identifications. Each year hundreds of human remains are found along the southern US border. Migrants fleeing violence and poverty are increasingly forced by US immigration policy to cross the border through treacherous terrain, risking death from exposure or violence. The infrastructure for DNA identification developed for missing persons is inadequate for migrant families, who might be residing in another country or living in the United States undocumented. Fear of US immigration and law enforcement authorities complicates the normal processes for reporting missing migrant cases and thereby limits family reference DNA collection. Many remains are buried without identification, some are buried without collection of DNA, some are buried without a marker to enable future identification, and some are cremated. Both governmental and nongovernmental efforts to collect DNA from relatives of missing migrants are further complicated by questions of sovereignty, privacy, and national security. International missing persons databases are underdeveloped and disconnected, and the informed consent process for relatives of the missing is inadequate for migrant families. The challenges of identification at the US-Mexico border underscore the systemic biases that exclude migrant populations from access to law enforcement processes that would enable identification of their family members and repatriation of their remains for respect and burial. Addressing these challenges at the US-Mexico border can inform cross-border policies for other migrant populations around the world.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationSilent Witness
Subtitle of host publicationForensic DNA Evidence in Criminal Investigations and Humanitarian Disasters
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages30
ISBN (Electronic)9780190909444
StatePublished - Jan 1 2020


  • DNA analysis
  • Forensic anthropology
  • Migrant deaths
  • US-Mexico border

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)


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