Then last year, Texas authorities saw an increase in the number of migrants crossing the border illegally, outpacing Arizona for the first time in a decade. Baker revived her project and headed back to the border with a team of students.
In Del Rio, a small border city about 360 miles southwest of Waco, they unearthed six remains, including an infant and a baby, and sent information about them to NamUs.
Jen Husak, a senior forensic anthropology major from Robinson, Texas, excavated graves with Baker and said she appreciated the anthropologist’s empathy.
“I don’t have this cold professor. I have someone who really cares,” she said.
In May, Baker and her student volunteers traveled to Brooks County, epicenter of the recent increase in illegal immigration and deaths. They worked with funeral home staff members, sheriff’s deputies and residents to retrieve remains from ranch land and makeshift burial plots.
Some graves were unmarked. Most had small metal signs with state death record numbers or the ranch locations and dates when the remains were found. Other signs were stamped “unidentified case,” “unidentified female,” “skeletal remains” or simply “Bones.” Some remains had been buried in wood boxes, others in body bags or the bare earth.
Brooks County Chief Deputy Sheriff Urbino “Benny” Martinez said local ranchers appreciated the respectful way Baker worked with them to locate and excavate remains on their massive properties.
Baker has also been marshaling added resources, getting help from anthropologists in the military and at other universities.
She still wrestles with the human toll, which she says “hurts my soul.”
“It is difficult to see this devastation and speak with grieving families and not feel brutally wounded,” Baker said. “It is hard to look at my sons at night and not cry for all of those who have lost their children.”
Sometimes, Baker gets to tell a family that remains do not belong to their loved one.
“They rejoice,” she said, “but then they call back a few days later and say, ‘What now?’ ”
©2013 Los Angeles Times
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PHOTOS (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IMMIGRANTS-REMAINS