Border Crossings

The Man Who Counts Bodies in the Desert

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Gregory Hess. Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty.

Over the last 24 years, during four presidential administrations, enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border has gotten much tougher. The miles of fencing grew; the number of guards exploded. While there's no evidence that "securitization" reduced illegal immigration—the number of border apprehensions of undocumented aliens did not fall dramatically until the Great Recession—it did succeed in forcing migrants to cross in less hospitable places. Pima County Chief Medical Examiner Gregory Hess says the result has been a spike in the number of people meeting lonely deaths in the deserts of Arizona. In 2000, his office began keeping detailed records of the human remains they received. In January, Reason's Christian Britschgi spoke with Hess about the specifics of his grim work.

Q: What made you start tracking these remains?

A: We just started to get more. It's really that simple. Back in the 1990s, we would average about 12 of these a year. We're talking about people that appear to have died in the active attempt of crossing into the United States without permission from the U.S. government—remains that we might find in a remote area that we believe to be a foreign national. We would examine the remains, issue a cause of death, and try to identify the person. Just by the nature of where we live and the environment we're in, sometimes that happens. But then we went from about 12 a year to 75, I think, in 2000. We averaged about 170 a year from 2002 to the end of 2013, and we had 154 last year.

Q: How do these remains find their way to your office?

A: About 50 percent are found by Border Patrol. They call whatever the local law enforcement agency is, based on where the remains are found. That local law enforcement agency will respond to the scene and do their own preliminary assessment, and then they'll call us.

Q: What do you look for when trying to determine whether this was just a lost hiker or an undocumented border crosser?

A: Property that might be with the remains, the condition of the remains, where the remains are found, whether someone is looking for a missing person, and are those remains consistent potentially with that missing person.

Q: And what is the most common cause of death?

A: The No. 1 cause of death from 2000 to 2017 was "undetermined." The reason is if the remains are decomposed, we can't definitively determine what happened. Death due to exposure—hypothermia, hyperthermia, dehydration—is the No. 2 category. But there is no specific lab test you could do to prove someone died as the result of heat stroke, for example.

Q: Given the conditions, how quickly would a body decompose to the point where you can't tell the cause of death?

A: Each case is specific to the circumstances. We have a 1-to-7 scale—1 being people who are fully flesh and in good condition, 7 being remains that are fully skeletal, weathered by the sun, and in the desert for a long period of time. It just depends.

Q: Are you able to find the identities of these folks?

A: We've been successful about 65 percent of the time. Sometimes we are able to make an identification relatively quickly and sometimes it takes a long time. And it's really circumstance-dependent—whether or not there is property found on the remains and whether or not family members are looking for that person.

Q: After you guys have gone through your process with the remains, what happens to them?

A: Unidentified remains would be interred at the county cemetery. They are buried or cremated, depending on the circumstance. And if they are identified at a future date, then they can be returned to family members.

This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity.

NEXT: Brickbat: Oh, Man

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  2. Where are all of the “Build a fucking wall!” people saying that these brown people deserved to die for attempting to cross the border without permission?

    (BTW the Constitution says nothing about “immigration,” it only speaks of “naturalization.” So it’s yet another inferred made-up power not actually delegated to the federal government.)

    1. “Where are all of the “Build a fucking wall!” people saying that these brown people deserved to die for attempting to cross the border without permission?”

      Sad to say, those people saying that will soon show up in droves, right here, in comments below…

      WHERE is the humanity?

    2. US Constitution, Article I, Section 9:
      The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person.

      So as Sarcasmic learned today, Congress can regulate immigration after 1808.

      If you wander into the desert and die, that’s on YOU.

      1. You mean the importation of slaves?

        1. Another very literal reading of the above clause would be, each state (Arizona, Texas, etc.) can decide who to let in, and not let in… NOT THE FEDS!!! But the feds can put a $10-or-less tax on each person coming in. So the WORST that the feds are authorized to do, to these horrible illegal humans, is to fine or tax them for $10 each, max!

          1. SQRLSY One|3.19.18 @ 9:17AM|#
            Another very literal reading of the above clause would be, each state (Arizona, Texas, etc.) can decide who to let in, and not let in… NOT THE FEDS!!! But the feds can put a $10-or-less tax on each person coming in. So the WORST that the feds are authorized to do, to these horrible illegal humans, is to fine or tax them for $10 each, max!

            Glad you agree that that clause applies to migrants.

            The part you left out was that Congress can regulate immigrants after 1808. Its after 1808.

            You can change all this if you can get enough Americans to support changing the constitution. Hahaha.

            1. The clause was to appease the southern states by not allowing the feds to restrict the slave trade for a period of time.

              1. It was an appeasement to the Southern States but that does not change the fact that it addressed slavery and immigration.

            2. You can change all this if you can get enough Americans to support changing the constitution. Hahaha.

              I would expect that exact statement to come from a progressive when they are getting all condescending against someone they don’t like.

              1. Your handle applies perfectly when you call me a progressive. Sarcastaball meant Libertarian but was being, well, sarcastic.

                You can’t change the constitution because you don’t have enough American support. Weeee…

            3. So the WORST that the feds are authorized to do, to these horrible illegal humans, is to fine or tax them for $10 each, max!

              $269.97

              1. Immigration is/would be free. Importation of slaves was $10 max.

          2. Man, you need to learn how to read.

            The Federales were not empowered to prohibit migration PRIOR to 1808, but they could impose a tax/duty in the amount of $10. So basically, none of this has any force today because it ONLY applied prior to 1808.

            The implication is that in 1808 and thereafter, Congress could prohibit migration.

        2. And migration of peoples.

          Slaves don’t migrate. They are imported and sold.

          1. Read up on the original meaning, Federalist Papers and such. Saying that “migration” means “immigration” is like saying “regulate commerce” means “regulate anything.” It’s not what they meant.

            1. Then YOU cite something from the federalist papers. I cited the constitution.

              You are wrong. That clause addressed slavery and migration of free persons or “migrants”. This did not apply to Americans since they were “citizens”.

    3. They should photograph all the remains as found and broadcast the photos (as a public service) to Mekkiko with the message, “This is what you can expect if you try to invade America”.

    4. Yes, Heaven forfend we build a wall that might tend to discourage people from risking their lives in a desert.

  3. In related news, the number of annual homeless deaths in New York City climbed from 162 in 2006 to 239 in 2016, and we have the technology to 3D print a home in 24 hours for $4,000 to $10,000. All we need is the land. Who wants to help me start a non-profit that sends undocumented immigrants/developers to Mexico where we build homes to give to the homeless of New York City?

    1. Why don’t we just ship the homeless of New York City to Mekkiko?

  4. Over the last 24 years, […] The miles of fencing grew

    Wait, what?

  5. Did he happen to count the bodies of the illegal immigrants that snuck into Mexico from South America that died in Mexican prisons after being caught? Or does his narrative fall apart when people learn how Mexicans treat those that sneak into Mexico?

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