Radical empathy in the U.S. – Mexico border

On the 3th of October of 2013, a boat carrying migrants from Eritrea, Somalia and Ghana sank on the island of Lampedusa in Italy. After these tragic events, the International Organization for Migration started a project in order to track and keep a record of migrant deaths. Today, the Missing Migrants Project estimates that around 28,000 migrants around the world have lost their lives since 2014.

The odyssey that these migrants have to endure takes them through unimaginable areas. Across deserts, jungles and oceans, thousands go missing. The word “missing” here can be applied to multiple scenarios:

  • Missing because they are unable to establish contact with their families, even though they may be alive
  • Missing because they have been detained without access to means of communication
  • Missing because they (or their families) choose not to seek help because they can get deported
  • Missing because their remains may never be found, or get properly documented or identified.

One of the most difficult challenges we face in the world is helping the families of these migrants. If we fail to do so, we are condemning thousands of people to oblivion.

During her intervention at the Failures of Care keynote, Doreen St. Felix references the essay “Venus in Two Acts” by Saidiya Hartman, where she tackles the subject of impossible speech — speech that, according to St. Felix’s interpretation, “occurred in history but was never able to have been recorded”. Hartman urges us to think about how can we recover those voices.

This question, framed within the context of missing migrants in the U.S. – Mexico border, adds new levels of complexity as it incorporates multiple local, state and federal administrative bodies. Each actor with their own rules, their own databases and their own records. How is it possible for these families to navigate this never-ending bureaucratic maze?

On October 2017 the International Committee of the Red Cross published a policy paper where they enumerated a series of recommendations in order to facilitate the search for and identification of missing migrants. In said paper the Red Cross suggests, among many other things, the following: standardize data collection “for the sole humanitarian purpose of searching for and identifying the missing person”, setting up effective channels of communication that support the families during their search, provide them with access to services, and lift “any specific and legal barriers” that the families may face in the exercise of their rights.

There is no question that the goal of the Red Cross is a noble one. Reading the policy paper one can see that there is a clear concern and commitment to respect and defend the families’ dignity. Access to information and records of missing and deceased migrants is fundamental for these families. Nevertheless, the solutions by such international organizations, more often than not, adhere to a rights-based framework. This lens is necessary and it can certainly help, but in order to be fulfilled, we need to set in motion a larger set of bureaucratic procedures that involve multiple branches of Government. This process can take years and can be drastically altered depending specific electoral results or the funding that certain agencies get so they can help this families.

Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor warn us of the shortcomings of such an approach, they state that a rights-based methodology “ignores the realities of more subtle, intangible, and shifting forms of oppression that are also pressing social justice concerns”. Although, one can argue that the forms of oppression that certain migrant communities endure in the country are far from subtle.

A clear example happened a month ago during a meeting in Boulder, Colorado, between the Forensic Border Coalition (an organization comprised by forensic scientists, scholars and human rights activists); Paula Wolff, a lawyer representing the FBI; and representatives of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. After six years of trying to make this reunion possible, the FBC asked the U.S. Government to grant them access to the National DNA Index System (NDIS) in order to help identify the remains of the migrants that have died or disappeared across the U.S.-Mexico border. Paula Wolff replied that, even though she sympathized with the families, and there was no disagreement on what must be done, “the only issues are working on how it is to be accomplished”.

Not only is the FBI limited by the law on what database information can be made public, the law also states that, in order to have access to the NDIS, “all DNA samples submitted to the database must be taken in the presence of law enforcement”. Nevertheless, the majority of these families do not want to approach the authorities because of their own legal status and fear of violations of privacy and surveillance. Unfortunately, given the harsh conditions of the desert, a DNA sample means that it is often the only viable way of identify a body. This rights-based framing of the problem jeopardizes the safety of this community, therefore, we must ask ourselves if there is an alternative solution that can help us establish dynamics of affective responsibility in order to help these families.

In the early 2000’s, forensic anthropologists Bruce Anderson and Robin Reineke started collecting information of the relatives who called the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office in Tucson, Arizona. This was not part of their job description but they realized that it was something important that they had to do. Reineke joined the office as part of her research for her dissertation but she continued with this work. In her words, once they talk with one of these family members, “it’s impossible to not feel responsible to carry on the search”. In 2013 she founded Colibrí Center, an institution that believes in radical empathy and is creating alternative channels to help these families.

During their first years of operation, Colibrí Center created a large database and helped families in their search, but a year ago, after receiving a grant from the Howard G. Buffet Foundation, they started collecting DNA from family members that needed their help. The new capabilities of the organization brought with them the necessity to elaborate systems that guarantee the safety and protection of the community they are trying to help. The Center keeps its database private, they do not inquire about the legal status of anyone that works them, they schedule appointments to collect DNA samples at locations that they do not disclose publicly, the tests are free and the names of those who are tested are not shared with the police.

In order to find if there is a DNA match, Colibrí works closely with the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner. The County’s Office has created a DNA database of more than 1,000 cases of unidentified individuals. The DNA samples collected are shared with a private lab where Colibrí also sends their samples “in the hope of producing blind matches between the unidentified and the families, matches that the medical examiner then confirms. Once someone is identified, Colibrí works to notify the family and to facilitate the next steps in the process.”

Colibrí Center has traveled to multiple states in the U.S. and even to Mexico in order to help these families. They have now created a solid network that is based on social justice. With their archival work they have become, in the words of Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor, “record-keepers…caregivers, bound to records creators, subjects, users”, and the community they serve.


Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor, “From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives,” Archivaria 81 (Spring 2016): 23-43.

Bergis Jules, Simone Browne, Kameelah Janan Rasheed, and Doreen St. Felix, “Failures of Care” Panel, Digital Social Memory: Ethics, Privacy, and Representation in Digital Preservation conference, The New Museum, February 4, 2017 {video} (1:08)

Hay Andrew, “Group seeks U.S. DNA to identify missing migrants”, Reuters. October 5, 2018. Accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-missing/group-seeks-u-s-dna-to-identify-missing-migrants-idUSKCN1MF2QI

International Committee of the Red Cross, “Missing Migrants and their Families”, ICRC. August, 2017. Accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.icrc.org/sites/default/files/document/file_list/missing-migrants-and-their-families.pdf

Colibrí Center, “DNA Program”, Colibrí Center. Accessed November 12, 2018. http://www.colibricenter.org/programa-de-adn/

Colibrí Center, “Colibrí’s Commitment to Protecting Privacy & Security”, Colibrí Center. May 25, 2017 {video} (3:00). Accessed November 12, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BKkRpm1wbk&t=13s




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