On Saturday, April 25, the Migrant Rights Collective of Houston (previously called the Prevention of Migrant Death Working Group) and the South Texas Human Rights Center (STHRC) jointly participated in Missing in Harris County Day. The collective of volunteers joined the event sponsored by the Institute of Forensic Science in Houston (Harris County) in a first of its kind attempt to assist families of missing migrants.
According to the information put out for advertisement of the day: "The National Institute of Justice estimates that there are more than 40,000 unidentified persons in the United States alone. We do not know how many missing person cases are never reported. Missing in Harris County Day is an opportunity for the Harris County Sheriff's Office, the Institute of Forensic Sciences, the Houston Police Department, and non-profit community resource agencies to reach out to families and friends of loved ones that have gone missing."
Even though Brooks County (location of the STHRC) is 9 counties southwest of Harris County, it is the place where most border crossers go missing or die trying to walk around the Border Patrol checkpoint that is located on Highway 281. Because of inspection, it is too risky to drive through the checkpoint. The next option is to walk around it.
|A Border Patrol agent inspects every car and driver at the Falfurrias inspection point located 70 miles inside the USA.
Knowing that migrant families search endlessly to find out the fate of their loved ones, the STHRC was asked to participate in the Missing in Harris County Day. Bilingual volunteers accompanied families through the wait and the process of giving a lengthy missing person report to STHRC and being assigned a Brooks County case number, having data entered into the NamUs data bank, and having DNA swabs taken.
|As many as 6 STHRC representatives took reports in one small room.
Professionals were on hand including Michael Nance, the Regional Administrator of NamUs, who entered data into NamUs, a Deputy Sheriff from Brooks County whose presence allowed missing person reports to be taken for Brooks County, and staff from the Harris County Forensic Genetics Laboratory who volunteered their time to complete the paper work and take the cheek swabs for DNA.
As this was the first event, planners had no idea what the response would be. As it turned out, 27 families came to give reports and DNA samples for persons missing while crossing through Brooks County (while 1 came for Harris County). Since that time, multiple phone calls have come in to the various centers and more missing person reports have been taken.
|STHRC volunteer Alyssa Weinfurtner from Ohio takes a missing person report in Spanish at the STHRC office on 4-27-15.
Now the challenge is to keep the work moving forward at an effective rate, including continued conversations with the family members.
Additional non-profit groups who work with the missing in Harris County were present. It was good to meet others in this space including Texas Equusearch, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Texas Center for the Missing, The Children's Assessment Center, The Doe Network, and Crisis Chaplaincy of Harris County.
Because of confidentiality issues, it is not possible to share any of the 25+ personal stories of lost loved ones that were shared. I can say that in the time allotment, I was able to meet with 2 different family groups to take their missing person report: one for a father/husband who was lost in 2013 and one for a brother/uncle who went missing in Brooks County in 2009. It was an emotionally draining experience for all involved.
At one point while our small room was full of groups in the process of giving a report, an Amber alert went off on our phones. It visibly preyed on the already frayed nerves in the room. Not only was the sound jarring, but it put the current tragedy of a missing child into the aura of the past tragedies of missing fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and children. Only this time a whole nation was looking for a missing child, and for those migrants gone missing in the past, no one seemed to care.
This work needs so many prayers! We also need Spanish speaking volunteers who would be willing to call family members about a missing loved one. Please consider joining us in Falfurrias to make these contacts.
Special thanks to Community Faith Church for allowing us to use their space. Special thanks to Sharon M. Derrick, PhD, D-ABFA for organizing a wonderful day and for allowing the STHRC to participate!
Thank you for your support and prayers.
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