Heather Friedman, supervising attorney at the Center for Human Rights and International Justice at Boston College. (Peter Julian)

It was a simple, matter-of-fact press release from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, but it offered an important, if sorrowful, clue to a mystery that had gripped an anxious family and the people—including a Boston College program staff member—trying to help them.

The CBP reported that on December 8, 2017, its Alpine Air Unit had rescued 14 of 15 illegal aliens who were lost in the high desert near the U.S.-Mexico border and suffering from extreme hypothermia. The announcement greatly interested Heather Friedman, supervising attorney at BC’s Center for Human Rights and International Justice, who was assisting a complex and anguish-filled search for “Mishel,” a young Guatemalan woman seeking to reach the United States.

An expert in international human rights and U.S. immigration law—but not missing-person investigations—Friedman would make her own “journey of learning” through the myriad of government agencies, judicial jurisdictions, health and medical organizations, and biological and forensic data while pursuing Mishel (a pseudonym).

 Mishel had left her parents’ village in Guatemala’s Pacific Lowlands to find work in Guatemala City, approximately 130 miles away.  Months later, her parents heard rumors that Mishel had disappeared after attempting to cross into the U.S., and asked Ricardo Falla-Sanchez, S.J., a Guatemalan anthropologist and a CHRIJ fellow, to help in determining their daughter’s whereabouts, whether she was alive, or if she had perished in an attempted border crossing as had been alleged.

In September 2018, Fr. Falla-Sanchez reached out to Lynch School of Education and Human Development Professor M. Brinton Lykes, co-director of CHRIJ, who in turn asked Friedman for her help. Friedman had “a confusing mix of information” to work with, she recalled, including the CBP press release and a claim made by “Alfonso”—a self-identified human smuggler—to Mishel’s father that a group of migrants had crossed the Mexican-U.S. border in early December, and then split, with half the group apprehended and the other half evading capture.

“Alfonso alleged that Mishel had not been arrested but had died, although her father was unaware that his daughter had planned a border crossing,” said Friedman, adding that individuals claiming to be from an investigation unit of the Guatemalan Foreign Relations Department had found Mishel’s father to report his daughter’s death, “but when he sought confirmation, the office insisted it had not sent anyone.”

If the victim was in fact Mishel, it meant she had traveled nearly 2,000 miles or more.

“I had never tracked a missing person before,” said Friedman. “Given my immigration work, I was well aware of how treacherous a border crossing can be, as well as the very sad statistics associated with irregular migration, but my effort to discover Mishel’s fate crystallized facts that I had known intellectually into something very human and personal.  My investigation became a journey of learning during which I was constantly reminded that extraordinarily desperate conditions in so many places drive people like Mishel to risk extreme danger to come to this country.”

A November 2019 study from the Center for Public Integrity found more than 600 migrants had died in the Americas since January, with more than half of the deaths occurring on the U.S.-Mexico border. CPI reporter Kristian Hernandez noted in an NPR interview that “many of those bodies are likely to remain unidentified, leaving families without closure.”

As Friedman discovered, the government resources and mechanisms that could help identify migrants who die during attempted crossings at the southern border are seldom mobilized for that purpose, and are inaccessible for the vast majority of people. But despite long delays, authorities on both sides of the border eventually took the proper steps to make identification possible for Mishel’s family.

As sobering as it has been to come face to face with the high price paid by Mishel and others like her, I was also heartened to encounter many professionals who understand that their technical expertise needs to be better shared with the families of missing migrants.
CHRIJ supervising attorney Heather Friedman

Friedman began calling CBP stations along the Texas-Mexico border, hoping to clarify whether Mishel was among the 14 Guatemalan migrants rescued in December 2017, or had perished in the unexpected, early winter storm that had engulfed the region—or had experienced a completely different encounter with U.S. immigration officials.  That tactic proved unsuccessful but resulted in a December 2018 conversation with a Department of Homeland Security attorney, who agreed to explore whether the agency could share information with her outside of the official Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process—a channel that Freedman hoped to avoid due to agency backlogs as well as privacy rules that she feared would prevent the release of information in a missing-person case.

But the U.S. government shutdown blocked Friedman from re-contacting the DHS attorney, so she submitted the FOIA requests.

Much to Friedman’s surprise, a FOIA officer contacted her a few weeks later with information: On February 18, 2018, the body of a female migrant had been found on the side of a highway in West Texas; the remains had been taken to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification in Fort Worth; and the area coroner and county sheriff’s office were engaged in the case.

A medical examiner’s office in West Texas confirmed to Friedman that it had conducted an autopsy on the female migrant, estimated to be 18 years old, whose name matched the first and one of the last names of her client’s daughter.  The cause and manner of death were unknown.  Not all information matched exactly, but details were coming together.  

One vital clue came from the judge assigned to the case, who reported that border patrol had been on the look-out for a female named Mishel, whose family had reported that she had attempted to cross the border but had gone missing.

The Guatemalan Consulate needed to be involved to conduct DNA testing on Mishel’s family, which eventually was completed, and the DNA was forwarded to a lab at the University of North Texas.  A backlog meant it would take from six to eight months to determine if there was a match.  

Then this past summer came the final piece of evidence: The Guatemalan Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that the DNA had matched, proving that Mishel was deceased, and her body would be repatriated to the family.  But Friedman’s work wasn’t finished yet, because Mishel’s father had difficulty accepting the news.

“He was simultaneously grief-stricken and confused, because it was so unclear as to how DNA testing and matching occurs,” said Friedman. “He was in disbelief. Ultimately, he wanted to know how and when his daughter died, why, and where, just as any father would want to know.”

Friedman asked the judge to share the DNA report on Mishel, which confirmed without doubt that the female remains were her client’s daughter.  Conveying the reliability of science was one challenge, but the father’s life experience—as a descendent of the Quiche Mayan Indians and survivor of the Guatemalan genocide, during which thousands of unarmed Maya civilians were massacred by the military—had left him with a severe distrust of the authorities.  

“I shared why I had faith in the data, and why I believed it was accurate,” said Friedman, who reinforced that the scientists involved had no ulterior motives.  “The forensic results ruled out foul play or disease; it was very clear that she died of exposure, the result of the unexpected intense cold and snow of the same early December storm that nearly caused the death of the 14 migrants rescued by the Alpine Air Unit.  

“My role—a common one for an attorney—was to translate, to explain to my client what was happening and what had happened, to serve as the interface between the government and the client, and to make the process clear to him. But most importantly, I shared this information with compassion, and a human touch.

“As sobering as it has been to come face to face with the high price paid by Mishel and others like her, I was also heartened to encounter many professionals who understand that their technical expertise needs to be better shared with the families of missing migrants.”

Phil Gloudemans | University Communications | January 2020