Local organization fights for the rights of migrants


There are over 900 unidentified remains at the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office. (Photo by Brittan Bates/Arizona Sonora News Service)

He had a tattoo of a lion with a soccer ball on his left forearm. It could be assumed from his tattoo that his journey began in San Marcos, Guatemala, near the border with Mexico. It could be believed he was born to loving parents who introduced him to the local club football team that had a lion mascot.

One would like to think he grew up a happy child, playing soccer in the streets with other kids his age and dreaming bigger than any adult imagination could conceptualize. These dreams and aspirations would then find him running after trains and crossing borders in his early 20
s, only to have his body fail him in the vast, barren desert of Southern Arizona.

For now, his name is John Doe with the lion and soccer ball tattoo, not to be confused with the 3,000-plus other bodies called John and Jane Doe piling up in border states morgues.

“It is a massive human rights disaster that is happening right now, here in Southern Arizona,” said Chelsea Halstead, program director of the Colibrí Center For Human Rights, a nonprofit family advocacy organization. “The amount of people dying is the equivalent of a small plane crash happening every year for the past 15 to 20 years.”

Since 2001, 2,770 individuals’ remains have been found in the desert along the Arizona-Mexico border, according to the Arizona Daily Star’s database.

More than 7,000 known people have died along the United States-Mexico border over the past 20 years, and that is a low estimate considering it is only the people that have been found. Also, border states have been known to not be as meticulous in recording the data as they should, Halstead said.

“It is a crisis of missing people, people who have died and not been identified and of people have died and been identified,” she said.

There are over 900 unidentified bodies in Pima County alone.

The Colibrí Center for Human Rights is the organization fighting for the rights of the missing and dead along the Arizona-Mexico border. For 10 years, Colibrí has been diligently working with families, forensic scientists and humanitarians to end migrant death through identifying the dead, reuniting the missing with their families and political advocacy for migrants.

“We are fighting for a future where the human rights of migrants are respected, their families are protected and migration is safe,” Halstead said. “We don’t think that anybody should have to walk two weeks in the desert to be with their kids or family. That is what our work is all about, pushing back against the narrative that migrants are dangerous or they are coming here to harm us.”

Colibrí is the Spanish word for the hummingbirds that migrate from the United States to the northern deserts of Mexico, to Central America and back. In 2009, a man’s remains were found along the border and in his pocket, he carried a small dead hummingbird — a common native symbol for safe passage.

Since being officially founded in 2013, Colibrí has helped identify more than 100 people. However, it expects the numbers to increase significantly, thanks to a new DNA program that allows the center to swab family’s DNA and compare it to the DNA of the dead. In the past, Colibrí relied on circumstantial data that was later confirmed with DNA.

“The future for us is bright in the sense that I think we are going to be able to bring peace to a lot of people through our work,” Halstead said.

With more than 3,000 missing person’s reports in the center’s database, hundreds of unidentified dead and the threat of a wall being built along the border, Colibrí’s work is needed more than ever, said Halstead, who blames policy for the mass amounts of death among the border.

“It takes over 19 years for these people to get the documentation to live in the United States legally,” she said.

So those wanting to join their families in America are left walking across isolated, remote regions of the desert, directly putting themselves in harm’s way.

“Our work is more relevant and important than it has ever been,” Halstead said. “The work we are doing is railing against the dehumanization of migrants. We are claiming in a very public way that migrants have the same human rights as anybody else and those rights are unfortunately being systematically denied along the border.”

Brittan Bates is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at brittanbates@email.arizona.edu.

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