Students work with OpID to identify migrant remains

After working with Operation Identification (OpID) that emerged in the wake of rising deaths among people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, Trinity anthropology invited Kate Spradley, associate professor of anthropology at Texas State University, to discuss her work identifying the remains of those who died while crossing the border.

“It’s a social justice issue,” Spradley said.

Professors from Baylor University and Texas State University exhumed unidentified bodies and transported them to Texas State’s body farm for processing. A small team led by Spradley cleans the corpses, takes inventory of personal belongings, and analyzes the skeletons to develop a biological profile for each body. The team then uploads this information to databases like the National Missing and Unidentified Person System (NamUs).

Jennifer Mathews, professor of anthropology, requires her anthropological forensics class to do a service project every year. This year, students chose to fundraise for OpID.

“We wanted to do something that was directly involved with forensic anthropology,” said sophomore Katie Stansbury. “It’s right in our own backyard, and with the election going on, immigration is such a big issue.”

Senior Ariel Spaulding brought OpID to the class’s attention. Spaulding interned for Texas State’s forensic anthropology department last summer, spending a lot of time at the body farm. Most bodies at the farm lie in the open, but the migrant remains stay in body bags.

“It’s definitely a lot grosser,” Spaulding said. “They don’t decompose as nicely as a body sitting out in the open sun. It was also more rewarding because you’re cleaning these bones so that someone can do an ID on them and return the bones to their family.”

The goal of OpID is to identify migrant remains so they can be returned to loved ones.

“The chances of identifying remains are slim, but they have had success,” said Mathews. “This means that loved ones back in Mexico or Central America can have some kind of closure. Lots of times, they don’t even know if their family members are alive or dead. These people were human beings, and they deserve people knowing who they were and a proper burial. They deserve dignity. That’s a human right. Giving them an identity back, we are giving them dignity.”

Students in Mathews’ class believe OpID’s work is highly relevant to the Trinity community.

“We live in San Antonio and this is happening in South Texas and not a lot of people know about it,” Spaulding said.

“Right now the policy is to drive people away from the border and forcibly deport,” Stansbury said. “People from South America are literally walking through the desert to save their lives. OpID humanizes the conversation.”

Mathews hopes OpID can enhance Trinity students’ understanding of forensic anthropology.

“Characters on shows like ‘Bones’ or ‘CSI’ are what people think of,” Mathews said. “A lot of forensic anthropologists are doing human rights work, going to genocide areas, working in places like 9-11, testifying in human rights cases against perpetrations of mass killings like Saddam Hussein’s, the Junta in Argentina and Rwanda.”

During her lecture, Spradley referred to anthropology as a service-based discipline. This description resonated with Mathews’ students.

“Anthropology is very much a service-based discipline,” said Faith Byrne, senior and president of the Anthropological Society. “It’s about helping those who can’t help themselves, either by being actively involved or being an onlooker or advocate for those societies, like these families who don’t know where their loved ones are.”

Mathews’ class is selling recycled notebooks through a semester-long fundraiser for OpID.

Mathews invites anyone interested to contact her directly about sales. Tables will also be set up during reading days before finals.