Inside the Arizona morgue at the epicenter of the migration crisis

by March 7, 2014 2:00PM ET

At the Pima County Morgue, Dr. Gregory Hess focuses on making the ID for unknown bodies found on the border

Pima County Medical Examiner Dr. Gregory Hess shows some of the personal items recovered with the remains of migrants found in the Arizona desert. Objects such as ID cards, phones and photographs can sometimes help identify the bodies.
Al Jazeera America

“Borderland” premieres Sunday, April 6 at 9E/6P

Before your eyes make sense of what they’re seeing, the smell hits you: It’s an acrid odor, somewhere between organic and inorganic, and if you stay in the cooler at the Pima County medical examiner’s office in Tucson, Ariz., long enough, it will cling to your clothes until their next washing.

The bodies themselves are stacked six high on industrial shelves, which reach almost to the ceiling and stretch 30 feet to the back of the room. Dr. Gregory Hess, the chief medical examiner at the county morgue, said there were about 150 bodies in the cooler that morning. Of them, more than 100 were of people who likely died while trying to cross the Sonoran Desert into the United States undocumented.

Many of these would-be migrants have yet to be identified, and the name tags hanging off the white bags holding their remains read only Jane or John Doe. On one, only Doe is written.

Despite the many challenges of identifying bodies in varying stages of decomposition, Hess said his office has been able to identify about two-thirds of border crossers. Making that ID, not the citizenship status of the deceased or their families, is the principal concern at Hess’ office.

“Sometimes the families of these individuals are in the United States already. Sometimes they’re here illegally. Sometimes they’re here legally. We don’t know what their status is or where they are,” Hess said. “If we do make an identification, then it can bring closure to a family if they are indeed looking for this missing person. Then they can carry on with their lives. It’s just the humane thing to do.”

Far away from Washington, D.C., where the fate of immigration reform is uncertain, selectively aggressive border enforcement and a merciless desert have collided to make this border morgue one of the most compelling epicenters of America’s ongoing immigration crisis.

One of hundreds of “John Does” waiting to be identified in the Pima County Morgue, home to the nation’s largest collection of missing-person reports for immigrants who have disappeared while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
Al Jazeera America

Of the nearly 6,000 migrant remains recovered by Border Patrol along the Southwestern frontier between 1998 and 2012, more than a third have passed through here. Between 2002 and 2012, the morgue took on an average of 176 recovered remains yearly. Last year brought 169 more. By comparison, the office examined the bodies of only five likely migrants in 1992, several years before the Border Patrol started building up enforcement capacity in popular urban crossing sites like El Paso and San Diego.

It was the scale of the tragedy passing through Hess’ morgue, and the often ignored story that tragedy tells about undocumented migration to the United States, that caught the eyes of independent filmmakers Ivan O’Mahoney and Nial Fulton.

“What a bizarre situation,” O’Mahoney said. “You’ve got one of the smaller cities in the U.S. and one of the busiest morgues, because of the situation with migrants dying crossing the border.”

As they were planning their new film project half a world away in Australia, the medical examiner’s office struck them as a poignant place to open their constructed documentary “Borderland.

“Why do you start at the morgue?” Fulton said and then answered his own question: “Because that’s the end. That’s the endgame, the endpoint for so many of these people. If anything is going to shake people out of their malaise, it’s a freezer or a cooler full of migrants.”

For O’Mahoney, the morgue scene would serve a dual purpose: It would paint a stark picture of the life-and-death stakes of immigration and its enforcement, and it would also bring out the views of the show’s six participants, all of whom have strong and divergent opinions about immigration and none of whom had ever been to the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I was also looking for a way into the story that would be, for lack of a better word, confrontational from the beginning, a way that would immediately set the fault lines among the group of participants, but would also immediately focus the attention,” O’Mahoney said. “I didn’t want to go in softly, softly … These are people who are dying. Now let’s go look at why that is happening and what  it says about our policies.”

At the start of the first of four episodes, the six participants are taken to the morgue but are not told where they are going. Accurately predicting reactions to something as extreme as being surrounded by more than 100 human corpses is a challenging task. Staring at the bodies, Lis-Marie Alvarado, an immigrant rights activist from Florida and one of the participants, said: “These are my people right here. This could be my family right now. This is what the law does. The law that you have here, that kills people like you see right here. I’m angry. Because all of these people here shouldn’t be dead.”

Moments later Randy Stufflebeam, a retired Marine from Illinois, responded: “This isn’t about what our country is doing unless you’re showing that this country is so good that people have been willing to die to try to make it here.”

“People didn’t come here because we think this country is pretty,” Alvarado answered incredulously. “Are you kidding me? That’s the least respect to all the bodies here to even say that. People come here out of necessity.”

Arizona’s Sonoran Desert is vast and unforgiving. A body can be lost for years — if it’s ever found — and will decompose quickly in the harsh environment. More often than not, Hess and his team have little more to work with than skeletal remains.
Al Jazeera America

After things quieted down, Alex Seel, a liberal artist from New York City, noted: “This is a morgue of people who died in the desert. There’s a lot of families that don’t know where their babies went.”

Stufflebeam nodded along as Seel spoke.

“It went beyond our expectations,” O’Mahoney said of the scene. “It was extraordinary how quickly it triggered a really heated debate, and not one that was disrespectful to the environment we were in, but one that really from the outset started exploring very seriously who is to blame for this.”

After the morgue, the participants’ journeys over the next several weeks would take them far away from Tucson and put them face to face with some of the most difficult issues surrounding immigration. Challenging the participants, and in turn the audience, was precisely the filmmakers’ ambition.

“What we want to do is to put very real people into situations where they are uncomfortable, exhausted, confronted, out of their comfort zone. It’s not ‘Survivor,’ it’s not ‘Duck Dynasty,’” Fulton said. “Those shows obviously have extraordinary success. What we wanted to do is use real Americans to highlight the problems that exist on their doorstep and that very few people in America are even remotely aware of.”

When the participants are removed from what they know, O’Mahoney said, the complexity of the issue can become clearer to them and to the viewers taking in their experiences. “I think that all of our participants, whether they came from the right or the left, would agree that having been immersed in this situation themselves has somehow changed the way they think about it.”

As Dr. Hess himself noted at his office, standing outside the cooler, “If it’s not up close and personal to what people do on the day-to-day, it’s abstract.” 

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