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Identifying the Dead: Methods Utilized by the Pima County (Arizona) Office of the Medical Examiner for Undocumented Border Crossers: 2001–2006

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The Pima County (Arizona) Office of the Medical Examiner has seen a dramatic rise over the past 6 years in the number of deaths related to the illegal crossing of our international border with Mexico. This rise in deaths is undoubtedly related to an increase in the number of foreign nationals who cross into the various Arizona jurisdictions that utilize the Pima County Medical Examiner to investigate their unnatural deaths. Because of the utterly dangerous nature of trekking across the Sonoran Desert, especially in the summer months, many of these unfortunate migrants succumb to the effects of heat-related illness and perish along the journey. The combined effects of a dry, hot environment and the remoteness of some of the trekking corridors can quickly render a deceased person unidentifiable by visual means. Thus, our office is faced with not only an increase in the number of deaths requiring medico-legal investigation but also an increase in the number of decedents needing additional specialized examinations in an effort to effect identification. This paper attempts to outline the problems and the methods utilized by our office over the past 6 years in the identification process of undocumented border crossers. It is hoped that this paper, as well as the others presented at this symposium, will allow for the sharing of information amongst all medical investigators who assist in the identification of these migrants. The identification of these individuals takes on added importance when one considers the possible nationalities, and perhaps motivation for entering into the US, of those that remain unidentified.
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Keywords: foreign nationals; forensic anthropology; forensic sciences; methods of identification; undocumented border crossers

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2008

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