Border Forensis

Mission & Research

A major area of research, innovation, and teaching at the Southwest Center is in the area of forensics. Rather than individual legal case investigation, researchers at the Southwest Center approach forensic research and intervention in a collective forum where evidence is collected and shared with various publics across disciplinary boundaries. The modern word “forensic” comes from Latin forensis, which referred to the Roman forum, “a multi-dimensional space of negotiation and truth-finding in which humans and objects participated together in politics, law, and the economy." (Forensis Architecture website). The Southwest Center’s Border Forensis Lab is a transdisciplinary research consortium focused on the collection and sharing of data, evidence, and histories related to migration and border enforcement in the Sonoran Desert region of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.

Despite the original Latin meaning of the term forensis, the modern cultural connotation of the word forensic has come be narrowly conceived as state practices of policing, surveillance, and investigation. In the Southwest Center Border Forensis approach, the forensic gaze is broader, and takes a systematic, holistic, historic, and social approach to the idea of “evidence.” The Border Forensis Lab collects and archives evidence provided by a diverse array of disciplinary approaches including forensic anthropology, geography, architecture, oral history, and ecology. Affiliated researchers (including students) and community members work together to closely examine and document how the Sonoran Desert region has been changed by two interconnected processes that have unfolded over the past twenty years: one of the largest human migrations in the continent’s history, and the local implementation of sweeping U.S.-federal border policies. Key publics include academia, human rights investigations, and the national dialogue about borders and migration.


Short border fence

Photo by Robin Reineke


The Borderlands Observatory

Comprised of partners from the Southwest Center, the School of Geography, the Southern Border Communities Coalition, and Borderlands Restoration Network, the Borderlands Observatory is building an ethical and equitable program of collaborative inquiry among academic, humanitarian, and environmental communities in the borderlands. A central goal of the observatory is to develop a framework for collaboration between researchers and community partners to protect, extend, and communicate the innovative local ways that human and non-human communities have resisted, restored, and flourished in the context of border militarization. The observatory will utilize ESRI ArcGIS Community Engagement Software (ArcGIS Hub) to build a web platform for collating and presenting border data and stories, and allowing for direct community participation. It is hoped that such a platform, which is both technical and social, will increase the diversity of voices in discussions of environmental and border issues and planning.

The Forensics of Human Identification at the Border: An Ethnographic Study

Lead by Principal Investigator Robin Reineke, this ethnographic study investigates the science and technology of human identification along the U.S.-Mexico border. Through in-depth ethnographic research with both governmental and nongovernmental forensic scientists, this study will contribute to understandings of how institutions, bureaucracies, and scientific practices operate. As the deaths and disappearances of Latin American migrants increased dramatically in Southern Arizona in the early 2000s, a local medicolegal office in Tucson was transformed. Practitioners at this office responded innovatively, creatively, and at times, radically in ways that stand along the border. This ethnography investigates the history of this office’s work to identify and make visible the victims of U.S. border militarization, and seeks to understand the confluences of science, technology, ethics, and local history that has made its work unique along the U.S.-Mexico border. In addition, this project investigates the ways in which massive human migrations are changing forensic science, and perhaps revealing the ways in which some dominant paradigms in forensic science and human rights that are proving to be ill-equipped to manage death and disappearance at the scale of modern global migrations.

Sign cautioning about illegal immigration and barbed wire along border

Photos by Robin Reineke


Health Risks and Coping Strategies in the Families of Disappeared Border Crossers

Every year, hundreds of Mexicans and Central Americans disappear in the Sonoran Desert while crossing over to the United States, paying a terrible price for their efforts to rejoin family members and seek work and safety. The painful effects of these ambiguous losses ricochet widely throughout the migrants’ communities on both sides of the border, compounding already high rates of economic hardship, family separation, and emotional trauma and thereby acting as an important but unexplored social determinant of health. The binational research team, including Principal Investigators Robin Reineke (University of Arizona) and María Elena Ramos Tovar (Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León) and UA researcher Rebecca Crocker, is investigating the health impacts of having missing family members. In-depth ethnographic interviews have been completed with 14 families of the disappeared residing in the US Southwest and northern Mexico. Families have reported high levels of negative health outcomes but also relate innovative coping strategies that can be shared for future service interventions. This team will publish preliminary results that will be used to seek funds to support a broader multidisciplinary partnership capable of quantifying the frequency of disease and well-being outcomes in this community. This research is supported by the Research Programs on Migration and Health (PIMSA for its Spanish acronym) through Berkeley Public Health.

Metal border wall extending to horizon

Photo by David Burckhalter