Thousands of immigrants have died crossing the southern U.S. border. Many are never identified, leaving their loved ones to speculate about their fate.
Lori Baker, an associate professor of anthropology at Baylor University in Texas, volunteers on behalf of those families, using DNA samples to identify bodies buried in unmarked graves. The 44-year-old sat down for StoryCorps with her husband, Erich, and talked about what inspired her work. Baker recalled visiting a sheriff's office, where she noticed a disturbing object on his desk.
"It was the skull of a younger person, and [the sheriff] was using it as a pencil holder," Baker said. "He had pens and pencils in the eye socket of this person. So that's when I decided something had to be done."
Baker travels to cemeteries along the U.S.-Mexico border, taking DNA samples from unidentified bodies. Then she cross-references those samples with reports filed by families of immigrants who went missing. The goal, she said, is "to find one little thing that might connect to the case that you're working on."
Identifying a body helps family members find resolution, Baker said. "But the families are going to know the horrible things that happened to their loved one," she said. "They die of heat stroke. ... And it's really overwhelming when you're holding them in your hands and you see the blisters that are on the feet of these individuals."
Baker remembers the first time she identified a body. It was a woman who lived with her mother and struggled to support her two young daughters. The woman decided to migrate to the U.S. to work and send money back to care for her children. But when she was injured during the trip, her smugglers left her behind.
"I thought, 'I gotta find out from that mom if it would have been better just not to know — thinking that maybe she lived and would come home someday,' " Baker said. "And she said, 'No. The hope eats you alive every day.' And now they say they are blessed because they're able to lay flowers on her grave."
Baker told Erich, who is an assistant professor in bioinformatics at Baylor, that her job hasn't gotten any easier with time. "I would love not to do this anymore, but I don't think I have it in me not to," she says. "Especially when we have an 11-year-old child and I know we probably won't figure out who he is and his mom's probably grieving somewhere. ... I don't know that I'll ever get over it if we don't figure out who he is."
Produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher Morris.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Thousands of people have died trying to cross the border from Mexico into the United States. Countless bodies remain identified, some ending up in unmarked graves in small border town cemeteries. Today on StoryCorps, we hear from a forensic scientist at Baylor University in Texas, who's trying to identify some of these remains and match them with families who are looking for lost relatives. Doctor Lori Baker recently sat down with her husband, Eric Baker, to talk about what she's experienced. In a note of warning, this story contains descriptions some listeners may find disturbing.
LORI BAKER: I went out on a forensic case and the sheriff had a skull on his office desk. It was the skull of a younger person. And he was using it as a pencil holder. He had pens and pencils in the eye socket of this person. So that's when I decided something had to be done. Now what we do is we go to cemeteries along the border. Sometimes they're multiple individuals in any one grave. We found people in trash bags. And we work to determine who they are. We take DNA samples and go through reports that families have filed to find one little thing that might connect to the case that you're working on. When we have an identification, it's resolution. But the families are going to know the horrible things that happened to their loved one. They die of heat stroke, its exposure. And it's really overwhelming when you're holding them in your hands. And you see the blisters that are on the feet of these individuals. I remember our very first identification. It was a woman. She had two young daughters and she lived with her mom. She couldn't take care of them, so she decided to come to the US so that she could work and send money home. So she paid someone to smuggle her across. And she twisted her ankle. And the group left her behind because she couldn't keep up. Well, her remains came to me. And when it was an identification, I thought, I've got to find out from that mom if it would have been better just not to know, thinking maybe she lived and would home someday. And she said no the hope eats you alive every day. And now, they say they're blessed because they're able to lay flowers on her grave.
ERIC BAKER: Has it gotten any easier?
L. BAKER: It hasn't. I would love not to do this anymore but, I don't think I have it in me not to; especially when we have an 11-year-old child and I know we probably won't figure out who he is. And his mom's probably grieving somewhere. It's really something that I don't know that I'll ever get over if we don't figure out who he is.
CORNISH: That's forensic scientist Lori Baker with her husband, Eric Baker, in Waco, Texas. The StoryCorps podcast is on iTunes and at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.