Researchers study what happens to the dead in Arizona desert

University of Michigan associate professor Jason De Leon said the study proves migrants who perish in the desert have been vastly undercounted. (Adobe Images)

University of Michigan associate professor Jason De Leon said the study proves migrants who perish in the desert have been vastly undercounted. (Adobe Images)

PHOENIX (AP) – A team of researchers is trying to better understand what happens to migrants who die crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, including many whose bodies are never recovered.

The team is monitoring dead pigs in the Arizona desert, studying things like their rate of decomposition and exposure to the elements, along with scavenging by animals.

University of Michigan associate professor Jason De Leon said the study proves migrants who perish in the desert have been vastly undercounted.

"If you can imagine that this happens to people, it's incredibly disturbing," said De Leon, director of his school's Undocumented Migration Project. "We have a humanitarian crisis, and we need better scientific data."

An investigation last year by The Arizona Republic found the U.S. Border Patrol tracked only those migrant bodies that its agents encountered, not those found by others. In three of the four U.S. states that border Mexico – Arizona, California and New Mexico – an investigation found migrant deaths exceeded the official count by 25 percent to nearly 300 percent, the Republic reported.

The investigation also found the absence of a full accounting of border deaths deprives policymakers of information that could save lives and improve border security.

This is the third time De Leon has run experiments with pigs in the Arizona desert. He said the higher the temperature, the sooner scavenging occurs.

De Leon said the experiments show how challenging it is to find and identify deceased migrants, particularly when their remains have been separated from any identifying personal items.

Kate Spradley, associate professor of anthropology at Texas State University, has run similar scavenging experiments with donated human bodies.

"Families (of migrants) have the right to know what happened to their loved one," she said of her research. "These cases deserve the same respect that everybody in this country gets. That's just how you treat the dead."

Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com