New database expected to help ID undocumented immigrant remains - Tucson News Now

New database expected to help identify undocumented immigrant remains

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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

No one else in the country is doing it because no other part of the country has the problem of a large number of migrants dying out in the wilderness as they try to cross illegally into the United States.

The human toll is great, and it puts a huge burden on the medical examiner's office.

Monday the Pima County Medical Examiner (M-E) and the advocacy group "Humane Borders" announced a new a website.

It's called The Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Immigrants.

GIS stands for Geographic Information System.

It's a database of places where remains have been found in the southern Arizona desert since 2001.

Humane Borders says that's when the number of migrant deaths started to rise in Arizona as the federal government began policies that funneled undocumented immigrants through the state.

The M-E's office says, since 2001, there have been some 2,100 known deaths.

About 600 still are unidentified.

The maps are available to anyone, but are particularly for use by families of the missing, for investigators such as the medical examiner and law enforcement, and for researchers.

It's expected to make the medical examiner's job easier as he searches for the identities of people whose remains are found.

It's the M-E's job to determine cause and manner of death, if possible, and to identify remains.

Wild animals, water and other factors can scatter remains over a large area, making it seem as if there is, not one set of remains, but many.

The new mapping system can give the M-E information his office needs to decide whether he has several cases that need investigating, or just one.

"The better handle you have on the data, the more ways you can manipulate it, the easier it is for you to make identifications and the less time it takes you do that," says Pima County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Gregory Hess.

"Another benefit is that if you have information about where a person was last seen, then you can do a search on the map around that place and start to see if you have any unidentified people in that area," says Humane Borders Anthropologist and Research Director Dr. John Chamblee who was instrumental in developing the mapping system.

Some expect the new tool may guide public policy.

"Our numbers get higher every year, pretty much for the last 12 years. And it doesn't seem like we've attracted the kind of political attention that would lead to immigration reform that would lead to some way for these people that want to come here and do blue collar jobs, especially, to let them cross legally and not have them risk their life crossing the Sonoran Desert," says Pima County Medical Examiner's Office Forensic Anthropologist Dr. Bruce Anderson.

Humane Borders Executive Director Juanita Molina says the organization uses information on immigrant death locations to guide its actions.

"We identify the places where people die and then we assign water stations close to those areas to try to prevent death. We also do preventive campaigns on both sides of the line, encouraging people not to cross, and letting people know about dangers of the desert," Molina says.

"What we found out in 12 years of death tracking data is that people are dying closer to the border wall and farther from the road. And so, for example, having this kind of death mapping data allows for law enforcement to take a look to see which corridors in the areas that people are crossing are most deadly," Molina says.

She says a combination of humanitarian aid and law enforcement patrolling efforts can help address the situation that leads to deaths in the desert.

An anonymous $175,000 grant paid for the development and maintenance of the web site.

Humane Borders' Dr. Chamblee says he wants to expand the website to include tutorials.

He also wants to expand the partnership to include more organizations.

Humane Borders and the M-E's office say they will look for additional funding to keep the site going.

Dr. Hess says no taxpayer money is being used.

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