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Figures point to securer border, but risk of death for illegals still high
Behind every body found, there is a human story. In most cases, it’s up to Dr. Gregory L. Hess and his colleagues at the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office to try to identify the body and, if possible, return the remains to the person’s family.
From 2001 through 2010, the office took custody of remains of 1,915 migrants and made identifications in 1,146 cases.
The bodies come in four states: intact, fresh bodies; decomposed bodies; mummified remains; and skeletal remains.
For the first two categories, examiners conduct autopsies, try to identify tattoos or scars, take fingerprints and document clothes, all of which can help with identifying the victims. In the case of mummified or skeletal remains, an anthropologist gets involved to try to determine basic details such as sex, age, ethnicity and whether trauma was involved.
Overcrowding in the county’s storage facility has become so bad that it has made national headlines. In 2005, the county bought space for an additional 142 remains, to reach a capacity of 262 full-sized bodies. During summer months, though, when migrant deaths spike, refrigerated trucks have had to be brought in to add space.
At any time, about 100 of the bodies in storage are of migrants, who are often tougher to identify and return to families — or if no identification is possible, to clear for cremation.
“This county, this office, have struggled for a while with how best to move these remains in a timely manner,” Dr. Hess said.
In 2005, the county invested in another cooler, and more recently it imposed a $75-a-day fee on other jurisdictions that leave their remains with Pima County. Dr. Hess said the fee has gone a long way toward prodding those other locales to make faster decisions about how to dispose of remains.
Dr. Hess said that even if nobody crossed the deserts, skeletal remains still would be found from those who died in earlier attempts. But for now, people are still crossing, and dying.
“We’re planning on the same kind of summer we’ve had for years,” said Dr. Hess. “We’re anticipating a lot of bodies in June, July, August. The summer that changes, we’re likely to notice.”
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