HOUSTON (AP) — Rolando Arriaza has visited hospitals, morgues and even the harsh, mesquite-covered terrain in South Texas that his brother trekked nearly two years ago after illegally crossing into the U.S. — all as part of an ongoing effort to find his sibling's remains and bring his family closure.
"You want to know if he died and you want to find the body," said Arriaza, whose 50-year-old brother Hugo Arriaza, from Guatemala, disappeared in August 2015 after being abandoned by a smuggler when he became ill.
Like many family members of missing immigrants, Arriaza, 45, has submitted DNA so it can be compared to remains found along the Texas-Mexico border. But while Arriaza, who lives in Philadelphia, submitted DNA to U.S. authorities, many others choose a different path that complicates potential identification of their loved ones' remains. Many missing immigrant family members living outside the U.S., or who live in the country but fear going to authorities due to concerns about their immigration status, instead give their DNA to non-governmental organizations working on this issue.
But advocacy groups say these families' DNA samples are being denied access to an FBI database used to make matches in missing persons cases because law enforcement didn't collect the sample. The groups say this issue has gone unresolved for years, leaving unused a valuable source of genetic data that could bring closure to hundreds of cases.
How big is the problem, and how somber are the findings? More than 2,900 immigrants have died while crossing the Texas-Mexico border alone since 1998, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. But it's unclear how many remain unidentified.
Since 2003, 222 of 879 cases of unidentified human remains sent from Texas border counties to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification have led to identifications. But the center — which works with law enforcement on missing persons cases — cautions there's no way to definitively say if the identified remains belong to immigrants.
A review of reports on the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System's database shows more than 320 unidentified remains found along the Texas-Mexico border since 2007 are likely immigrants.
A large number of immigrant remains in Texas have been found in Brooks County, where authorities about four years ago discovered many had been haphazardly buried in a local cemetery. The county is home to a Border Patrol checkpoint 70 miles (112.65 kilometers) north of the border that immigrants avoid by walking around it for days. Arriaza's brother was attempting to do so when he disappeared.
Kate Spradley, a biological anthropologist at Texas State University in San Marcos who's helping identify remains found in Brooks County, said she's frustrated by the slow identification pace. Her lab has received 238 sets of remains but only 24 have been identified. Most are from Brooks County, but some are from other counties, including 13 sets exhumed in May in Starr County.
"The DNA samples that are collected by (non-governmental organizations) in Latin America are what we need to make identifications," she said. Complicating Spradley's efforts is a lack of funding, including a loss this year of a federal grant.
Spradley said access to more family member DNA would be welcomed as six more cemeteries in several other South Texas counties have been identified where immigrants were buried.
Texas law mandates DNA samples from unidentified remains must go to the University of North Texas, which sends them to the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS database. But per FBI rules, samples from potential family members not collected by law enforcement are denied access to CODIS.
Mercedes Doretti, co-founder of the Buenos Aires-based Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, said her group has collected more than 2,700 DNA samples from family members in Mexico and Central and South America since 2010. Doretti said her group has tried to satisfy various FBI concerns but to no avail.
"We don't know exactly what is needed to move forward," said Doretti.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission has had discussions with the FBI, the Argentine team and others, but with no resolution.
The FBI declined to comment on its concerns.
Corinne Stern, the medical examiner in South Texas' Webb County, said the FBI's safeguards are in place because "this is somebody's DNA and we have to take the utmost care with it."
Arizona 7/8— with 2,970 immigrant deaths since 1998, according to the Border Patrol — also submits DNA samples from remains to CODIS. But the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in Tucson, which handles the majority of immigrants deaths in Arizona, does allow these DNA samples to be submitted to a private lab in Virginia, where they're compared to family DNA samples collected by the Argentine Team and the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, a Tucson-based nonprofit.
"This law enforcement requirement is excluding hundreds, probably thousands of families who want to have answers about their missing loved ones from getting those answers," said Robin Reineke, the Colibrí Center's executive director.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70