A tragedy has unfolded over the past two decades along the U.S.-Mexico border, where the remains of at least 9000 human beings have been discovered in the desert borderlands since 2000. While migration itself is not a crisis, the loss of life most certainly is. In addition to those who mourn the dead are those who experience the painful ambiguity of loved ones’ disappearances. The scale of death and disappearance is vast, both spatially and temporally—the geography is not limited to the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, but also includes the south-to-north migration corridor from Central America to the U.S., where losses have occurred gradually and continually since the early 2000s. Within communities where migration is prevalent, everyone knows of someone who has disappeared en route. Sadly, this loss of life will likely continue until Latin American peoples are able to immigrate to the U.S. safely and legally. In the meantime, it is important for students to learn about this issue, understand its root causes, and work on solutions.

The authors of this chapter are both educators and practitioners. Dr. Bruce Anderson has been a forensic anthropologist at the Pima County, Arizona, Office of the Medical Examiner since the year 2000, and an instructor and mentor of students of forensic anthropology, mostly at the University of Arizona, since 1999. Beginning in 2006, Dr. Robin Reineke studied under Dr. Anderson for her master’s and doctoral degrees. In 2013, she co-founded the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that supports families of missing migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border through forensics and advocacy. Dr. Reineke directed Colibrí until 2019, and then became a full-time researcher and instructor at the Southwest Center of the University of Arizona.

Our experience as practitioners in the medico-legal field and educators at the university level informs the approach of this chapter, which emphasizes project-based learning, internships, and community engagement. Our interaction with students on this topic has primarily been through teaching an introductory forensic anthropology course at the University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology—and through mentoring student interns at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner (PCOME) and the Colibrí Center for Human Rights. After describing the background of the problem of deaths and disappearances along the U.S.-Mexico border, we will discuss our approach with students in the classroom, the lab, and, finally, in terms of ethical and equitable engagement overall.


U.S. border and immigration policy has often been violent, inequitable, and inconsistent, especially since 1924, when the Johnson-Reed Act was signed into law. It established numerical quotas limiting the number of immigrants allowed entry by country, following a racial hierarchy heavily influenced by the scientific racism of eugenics (Ngai 2014). The Act prevented immigration from Asia, set quotas on the number of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, and provided funding for the newly formed Border Patrol. Importantly, there were no numerical restrictions on immigration from countries of the Western Hemisphere, protecting the agricultural sector’s access to Mexican migrant laborers who worked seasonally for low pay (Ngai 2014; Chacon and Davis 2006). The historian Mae M. Ngai traces how the newly established Border Patrol, founded under the Department of Labor, quickly came to operate as a special police force focused on the repression of Mexican workers (Ngai 2014). While laws like Johnson-Reed guaranteed the availability of workers, violent policing and deportations by the Border Patrol discouraged workers from organizing to demand better working conditions and wages. This dual U.S. process of importing workers while simultaneously criminalizing them would continue for the next hundred years, always using the border as a release-valve for the deportation of surplus laborers (Chacon and Davis 2006) and as a spectacle of control (De Genova 2002).

In 1965, the Hart-Celler Act finally installed quotas for Western Hemisphere nations. Although the law abolished the racist hierarchy of national-origin quotas, it also established a per-country cap of 20,000 quota visas per year (Ngai 2014). Given that in the early 1960s, Mexican migration included some 200,000 Braceros (seasonal workers with visas) and another 35,000 admissions for permanent residency, “the transfer of migration to ‘illegal’ form should have surprised no one” (Ngai 2014: 261). Since that time, migrants wishing to work in the U.S. have been compelled to face the dangers of the desert borderlands.

While laws like Hart-Celler legally created “illegal” migration and criminalized migrants, it was changes in border enforcement strategy in the 1990s that made migration deadly. Under President Bill Clinton, the 1994 Border Patrol Strategic Plan—containing stratagems such as Operation Hold the Line, Operation Gatekeeper, and Operation Safeguard—enhanced the presence of border enforcement in urban areas and, in between, harnessing the deadly potential of U.S. Southwestern deserts “in a strategy of prevention through deterrence.” The resulting loss of life was swift and severe, as migrants tried to walk through increasingly remote and arid portions of the borderlands. Migrant deaths first increased in California in the late 1990s before shifting to Arizona, which then saw a more than tenfold increase between 1999 and 2001 (Rubio-Goldsmith et al. 2006). Since 2000, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner (PCOME), which covers most of the Arizona portion of the border, has investigated the deaths of a yearly average of 156 individuals recovered from the desert borderlands (Martinez et al. 2021; PCOME Annual Report 2020). Between 1990 and 2020, the PCOME has examined a total of 3356 cases of remains either known to be, or believed to be, migrants.Footnote 1

In addition to confirmed deaths, there is also the enormous social and scientific problem of disappearance in the desert.Footnote 2 Families of the missing spend months or years searching, all the while enduring painful ambiguity and extreme stress (Reineke and Anderson 2016; Crocker et al. 2021). Forensic authorities struggle to identify the dead due to the harsh landscape, the lack of medical and dental records for the missing, and decentralized data scattered throughout the Americas (Anderson and Spradley 2016; Latham and O’Daniel 2018). When families and forensic authorities are able to successfully link the information they each have, unnamed remains can be connected with a missing loved one, and a family can finally begin to mourn and heal. However, many families never get answers, but continue to search for years. Along with these families, forensic scientists, cybersleuths, activists, and humanitarians have been creative in their efforts to find the missing and identify the dead. Students can participate in these efforts in many ways.

In the Classroom

The University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology has a long history of educating future anthropologists in all subfields, including forensic anthropology. The late Dr. Walter H. Birkby, a preeminent forensic anthropologist, trained innumerable undergraduate and graduate students in forensic anthropology in both the classroom and the laboratory from the early 1970s through the mid-1990s. Today, students interested in forensic anthropology may take a number of courses, including Introduction to Forensic Anthropology. This course, which takes the U.S.-Mexico border as a case study, was devised to teach students a history of the field, an understanding of current methodologies, and an appreciation of how the discipline can be fully integrated into medico-legal death investigation alongside forensic pathology, other forensic sciences, and law enforcement. Especially in the border context, forensic anthropology is essential to this medico-legal death investigation because it brings a holistic anthropological perspective to the table. Dr. Anderson previously taught the course; Dr. Reineke became the instructor in 2016. The pedagogical approach to this class follows that of Dr. Birkby, who believed that students learn best by interacting with real skeletal remains and through real-life problem-solving. As taught now, the course has three learning components: hands-on labs with real bones, interaction with guest speakers, and readings that cover not only the basics of forensic anthropology and human osteology, but also the social determinants of health, the causes of migration, and ethics. We will describe some components of the course in detail, to show how project-based learning can link students with communities facing complex challenges.

At the beginning of the semester, students join small groups of 4–5 and are introduced to a semester-long mystery. Each group is provided with a box containing bones (loaned to the School of Anthropology by the PCOME) and various items of clothing and personal effects (purchased at Goodwill). They are given the following mock scenario and challenge: “Law enforcement recently discovered six boxes of bones in the basement of the Anthropology building, and they have asked you all to help them create profiles for each unidentified case.”Footnote 3 Each week during the semester, students apply what they have learned about forensic anthropology to unlock clues about the case. They note any personal effects and the condition of remains, establish the minimum number of individuals, and then create a biological profile as they learn how to assess sex, age, stature, and individualization. Throughout the process, they are invited to think like forensic anthropologists and become familiar with the particular strengths and limitations of the field.

A variation of this project-based learning plan was created in 2020, when the class could not meet in person. Using the publicly available online database, NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System), each student selected a real missing-person case where the person was last seen in Arizona. Each week, they learned how to adjust search parameters based on sex, age, date last seen, and identifying features. They were invited to become a sleuth on behalf of that missing person. One student enjoyed using NamUs to search for the missing so much that she created four very strong comparisons between missing persons and unidentified human remains using the system; her comparisons were forwarded to the PCOME. Any classroom in any region could make use of NamUs in a similar way.

While they are learning about forensic anthropology through real bones or cases online, students are exposed to the U.S.-Mexico border context as a case study, with supplemental readings, films, podcasts, and guest speakers. Guest speakers join the classroom from the PCOME, the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, and from among families searching for a missing loved one on the border. While it is best practice to financially compensate guest speakers for their time and expertise, this is not always possible. The instructor is careful to make sure that guest speakers are actively interested in speaking with students and feel that they get something out of the experience. We have found that PCOME forensic anthropologists appreciate their time with students and benefit from the opportunity to share information about internships with our classes. Every year, at least one student from the class becomes an intern, inspired by the work of the guest speaker. Families of the missing who have spoken with students share that it is meaningful for them to talk about their missing loved one and to feel that their experience is important enough to be heard in a university classroom. Students report that hearing from guest speakers is their favorite part of the class, and that having the opportunity to meet forensic practitioners and families of the missing is powerful.

Finally, the readings that students complete for the class include both a traditional forensic anthropology textbook (Christensen et al. 2019) along with anthropology journal articles that approach the social science of migration, health, and forensics. These supplemental readings cover structural violence (Farmer 2004; Quesada et al. 2011), the social determinants of health (Castañeda et al. 2015; Gravlee 2009), the embodiment of poverty (Goodman 2013; Beatrice and Soler 2016), controversies surrounding anthropological assessments of race and ancestry (Sauer 1992; Caspari 2003; DiGangi and Bethard 2021), the history of migrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border (Reineke and Anderson 2016; Latham and O’Daniel 2018), and the social distribution of injury, trauma, and death (Kimmerle et al. 2010; Howarth 2007; Hughes et al. 2017). Discussions of these readings enhance the students’ forensic inquiry to include socio-structural factors as part of the “mystery” to be solved. A forensic, scientific, curious, and empathetic lens is encouraged—not just as a way to view skeletons, but as a way of seeing the world.

In the Lab

Beginning in 2004, the PCOME created an Internship in Forensic Anthropology in partnership with the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. This internship was devised to provide hands-on exposure to forensic anthropology examinations in an effort to allow the student to assess whether this field offered a course of study they might want to pursue. Both undergraduate and graduate students have been invited to apply, with usually one but sometimes two students accepted per semester. While the first internship was originally restricted to University of Arizona anthropology students, gradually students from other universities have been allowed to take part. From the perspective of the PCOME, the most rewarding outcome of the internship has been when undergraduate students go on to enroll in a graduate program to pursue training as forensic anthropologists.

In addition to the internship at the PCOME, the Colibrí Center for Human Rights has accepted volunteers to become a part of the team through semester-long internships. College interns can join Colibrí in the fall, spring, or summer, where they work closely with staff on a particular project, usually relating to finding creative new ways to communicate about the problem of death and disappearance in the borderlands. Colibrí interns have gone on to get degrees in Latin American Studies, Forensic Anthropology, Public Policy, and Sociology.

Ethics, Empathy, and Equity

Through our long-term experience with this issue, having spent countless hours trying to identify the dead and working to inform the public and policy-makers alike about the true costs of U.S. border policy, we have come to understand that the problem we face is not one of science, but one of empathy. As the border and migrants gradually came to be constructed as threats in the minds of many Americans, our collective ability to recognize human suffering through the noise of fear-mongering and scapegoating has weakened. While teaching, we invite students to practice empathy and ethical engagement with the stories they encounter, regardless of their political beliefs. For example, one of the first laboratory exercises in the forensic anthropology class asks students to take missing-person reports for each other, placing them in the position of a missing person themselves. Another exercise asks students to fill out a missing-person report for someone they love, thinking through what it would be like to have to recall every detail about a parent or sibling. And, before the boxes of bones are opened, we invite all students to recognize their privilege and responsibility as they begin to handle human remains, which they are encouraged to encounter with respect and care.

Similarly, while working with student interns, PCOME forensic anthropologists teach and demonstrate ethical engagement with human remains and with families. Students are reminded that each case of skeletal remains was once a living person, and respectful laboratory etiquette and decorum are demonstrated at all times. The PCOME treats every case of human remains with the same level of respect and scientific rigor. The risks and benefits of every action taken to examine bones, especially actions that may be destructive, are weighed for their potential impact on the family. Student interns are invited to observe and participate at every step alongside PCOME forensic anthropologists.

While many students will benefit from such an approach, it is critically important to remember that not all students will need to practice empathy, as these issues already hit close to home. Some students may be immigrants themselves, or have close family members who experienced a border crossing. Others may have experienced traumatic loss or the violent death of a loved one. On the first day of the Introduction to Forensic Anthropology class, students are asked to fill out a one-page introduction shared only with the instructor. There, they have an opportunity to share a personal loss or a family experience with migration. This allows the instructor to be mindful of the diversity of experience in the class and provides an entry point for authentic discussion, check-ins, collaborative learning, including, and of course, learning on the part of the instructor.

The pedagogical collective Learning Scientists for Racial Justice has produced helpful tips and guidelines for educators seeking to foster learning environments that are inclusive, equitable, and anti-racist. Of particular relevance to studying migration is their recommendation to avoid expecting more labor in the form of sharing or teaching from students of color, or in this case immigrants, than from non-immigrants in the classroom. Sharing personal experiences can foster community, inclusivity, and dynamic learning, but it can also cause stress that is often unequally distributed according to social experiences of race, class, and gender. There should always be an option to step back from an assignment or discussion and replace it with something else. Finally, maintaining an ethical, equitable approach should also apply to working with off-campus organizations, especially community organizations. Nonprofits and community organizations are usually under-funded, short-staffed, and asked to do a lot of free labor. We encourage slow, careful dialogue with such groups to learn if a guest lecture, site visit, or even semester-long learning project undertaken by students might benefit the nonprofit—and, if not, for educators to respect these decisions. There are often powerful projects students can do that would take no time from a community organization—for example, assessing their communication strategy, doing a content analysis of all press done about the organization, or building out a social media campaign—any of which can then be shared with the organization as an offering at the end of the course.


We have shared one very context-specific example of educational practices that seek to engage students in active learning around issues related to migration. Our approach emphasizes project-based learning, problem-solving, community engagement, empathy, and critical thinking. We aim both to provide students with helpful academic and life skills, and to invite them to be part of solving complex social and scientific problems at the local level. Although our disciplinary approach is that of forensic anthropology, the model of engaging students with a local challenge or cause spearheaded by a government office or community organization is one that can be adapted to almost any discipline, especially those in the social or health sciences. While our approach is grounded in a particular local manifestation of a social problem, this learning model could be adapted anywhere. Wherever educators find themselves in the U.S., they are undoubtedly near places, organizations, and people engaged in work to advocate alongside migrants, immigrants, or refugees. The intrusion of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) into immigrant communities throughout the U.S. has created a multitude of challenges that communities work hard to fight each day. Many students are directly affected by border and immigration violence, and they often know more than they realize about what can be done to support immigrant communities effectively. One of the best things about our work with students is watching them innovate, dream, and lead.