Thousands Are Missing or Dead Along the Border. Meet the People Trying to Find Them

Tucson is a dustbowl. Flanked by mountains to the east and west, the city that was built in the middle of the Sonoran desert — known mostly for fire-red sunsets that cast shadows from long-armed saguaro cacti — can be deadly.
When I visited in June, it wasn’t even summer yet, and midday temperatures were already kissing the tops of thermometers in the triple digits; the pool water at my hotel felt like tepid bathwater. For most people who live here, it’s the beginning of a season for barbecues under shaded awnings and pool parties, in a desperate attempt to stay cool.
But for workers at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, it’s the season of the dead.
Pima County is one of the many areas along the U.S. southern border that doesn’t have a border wall. Even in areas where there is a wall, desperate immigrants still try to cross on foot.
The number of immigrants who’ve been apprehended trying to cross the border has decreased over the past two decades, from nearly 1.7 million in 2000 to a fifth of that number this year — thanks in part to foreign policy initiatives enacted by the Obama and Bush administrations, in addition to hints of economic resiliency in Mexico. But the number of people who die crossing the border has remained the same, and in some areas has even gone up.
What that means, essentially, is that the death rate has increased dramatically, leaving us with evidence of something more problematic than just a border security issue.
“We’re in the middle of a humanitarian crisis, absolutely,” says Dr. Robin Reineke, an anthropologist and co-founder and executive director of the Colibrí Human Rights Center in Tucson.
The crisis becomes obvious in the Pima County morgue, where body bags are stacked in the freezer, many with identification tags scrawled with “John” or “Jane Doe.” For remains that can’t be assigned a gender, they are designated “Unidentified.” The number of bodies can get so cumbersome that during this time of year, mobile freezer trailers have been brought in to house the overflow.
The bodies — or more often than not, the skeletal remains — arrive in pieces, with little way of identifying them. But a recent partnership between Colibrí and the medical examiner’s office has enabled a unique combination of cultural anthropology and DNA testing to ID the unknown. Working together, they have successfully identified 150 bodies over the past decade.  
Though that number is tiny compared to the thousands who, over the years, have gone missing and are feared dead in the Arizona desert, for grieving families who agonize over whether or not their loved ones are dead, identifying the bodies allows for some sense of closure.

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At the Pima County morgue, unidentified migrant bodies stack up in the summer months.

Carmina Santa Cruz hasn’t seen her son, Marco, for five years.
Since Santa Cruz first came to the States as an illegal immigrant in 1985, her son and daughter have shuttled back and forth between Mexico and the U.S., in order to spend time with their mother.
It’s not uncommon for immigrants from many countries to come to the U.S. for six months on a tourist visa, then return to their home country to reset the clock, before repeating the cycle again. It’s an easy way to skirt immigration rules without being deported, so long as you’re not caught working. But for those who stay longer than six months and are caught, that’s when people are detained and barred from entering the States for years as punishment.
But Marco wasn’t deported — he had no intention of living in the U.S. He owned a shop in Nogales, Mexico, and lived comfortably, according to his mother, who spoke to NationSwell through an interpreter.
But Marco was depressed. A divorce from his wife, who barred him from visiting his children, sent him into a depression, says Santa Cruz. “He told me that he had no desire to live,” she adds. “According to him, he was coming to my house, but I did not know anything about him crossing the desert.”
In August, three weeks after he said he would arrive, Santa Cruz panicked and went searching for him.
“I went to Nogales to look for him like every 15 days or every week. A supposed friend that [crossed the border] with him came back and tried to reach me to explain that my son had died in the desert,” she says.
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“I could not do anything, I felt as if I was disabled and powerless to do anything,” says Carmina Santa Cruz, who’s son has been missing for years.

But that was just one of many stories Santa Cruz heard about what had happened to her son. Marco’s friends and acquaintances reached out, sharing different details on where they had last seen him. Santa Cruz followed every lead. She began her search at the Mexican Consulate in Tucson, but quickly realized that they would not be able to help her. She also went to the sheriff’s office, but says that they “treated me like a Mexican, like I wasn’t worth anything.”
That’s not an uncommon feeling for many immigrants who learn about lost family members at the border. And going to Border Patrol, which does search and rescue for bodies reported along the border, comes at a risk — especially if they’re undocumented.
“They can contact Border Patrol, they can contact the police department, they can contact [their] consulate, but they also need to know that we’re here to do a job, which is to enforce the immigration laws,” says Operation Officer Hugo Vega, who heads the U.S. Border Patrol’s Missing Migrant Program in southern Texas. “They gotta be aware of any consequences that could arise from coming to the Border Patrol station, and if they’re here illegally, there’s gonna be a process to follow.”
It’s that process that has most families spooked into staying silent. As a result, mothers in Santa Cruz’s position end up losing hope in finding their children.
“Every day I locked myself up in a room to cry because I did not know how to find him; all the doors were closed for me,” she says. “I could not do anything, I felt as if I was disabled and powerless to do anything. In this time of anguish, the only thing that you want is for someone to open a door for you.”
To say the trek over the U.S.-Mexico border is difficult is a radical understatement. I grew up in Arizona, where oven mitts and beach towels were common driving accessories inside hot cars, which could top 130 degrees when parked outside for even short periods of time. We even had a pool cooler, growing up.
So I wanted to see what it was like crossing the border myself, or at least experience what it was like to walk through the desert — something I had never done outside of recreational camping.
In my visit to Tucson, I parked my car on the shoulder of a highway southwest of the city and walked south into the San Xavier Indian reservation toward the Mexican border. According to my GPS, the border was a day’s walk away on the road. Close to 500 bodies have been discovered in this area since 2002, according to the Arizona Open GIS, which tracks migrant deaths along the border through the nonprofit organization, Humane Borders.

Most of the bodies and skeletal remains found there are unrecognizable. Once a person dies, decomposition begins. Leave a body in the desert for even a day and, with the help of heat and hungry desert animals, faces become unrecognizable. Identifying marks, such as tattoos and birthmarks, quickly fade away.
“It’s not uncommon for someone to essentially become skeletal remains within a small period of time, say a few weeks, where it may take a lot longer for that to occur in a cooler environment,” says Dr. Gregory Hess, Pima County’s chief medical examiner.
But immigrants coming to the U.S. by foot aren’t using an iPhoneX to lead their way, like I was. And they generally avoid highways, where Border Patrol might be driving, making the day’s walk last up to a week, I’m told by those who have survived the trek.
I didn’t last more than two hours in the sun before having to turn back. In that short time, the bottoms of my feet were burnt through my shoes, and I was drenched in sweat. I could have easily become dehydrated within a few more hours — which is how most people crossing the border die, according to Pima County officials.
For corpses that are recovered, they are often found in pieces, with skulls and other large bones separated from the bodies. In 2010, then-Arizona Governor Jan Brewer used headless bodies found in the desert as “proof” of illegal immigrants killing people after crossing the border. (Contrary to Brewer’s claims, when a body decomposes, there is very little to hold a skull to the spine, so a head easily detaches and rolls away.) Out of the thousands of bodies that have gone through the Pima medical examiner’s office, less than 50 have been labeled as victims of foul play — and even those are death by firearm, Hess says.
“Almost all of [the deaths] have been from exposure,” he adds.
Some immigrants have gone to great lengths to rescue bodies at risk of getting lost. Stretchers made out of cholla cactus skeletons and bound with shoelaces and underwear bands have been found throughout the Arizona desert. In one instance, Reineke tells me, the body of an elderly woman was carried on a stretcher to the nearest road where Border Patrol was flagged down.
But not all immigrants can afford to waste that kind of energy, or risk being deported by carrying bodies along with them across the desert.
César Ortigoza is the founder of Armadillos Búsqueda y Rescate (Armadillos Search and Rescue) in San Diego, a group of San Diego–based volunteers who perform search and rescue operations for immigrants lost in the desert. Ortigoza is one of a handful of volunteers who are contacted by family members, mostly through Facebook, seeking help in finding their missing loved ones.
“Every single day we get between two and five [calls],” he says. “Most of the time when they call us, they say, ‘I know he went through Arizona.’ A lot of time we say, ‘What part of Arizona?’ And they say, ‘That’s all we know.’”
Ortigoza is short and cherubic, and when he laughs his face wrinkles like the skin of a ripe peach. We are drinking chilled coconut and agave water in his apartment in Vista, California, laughing about the Star Wars action figures he has lined up on his desk, when he gets a call. It’s a woman inquiring about her husband: He had been deported and was trying to get back to his family in the U.S. by crossing the border, but had gone missing instead.
“He said he was about an hour-and-a-half away, but he said to me, ‘I feel weak,’” the woman told Ortigoza over the phone, crying. She told Ortigoza that if her husband felt he was in danger, he would call Border Patrol for help. But now his phone was dead, and there was no way of knowing if he was dead or alive.
Finding bodies isn’t necessarily the largest hurdle for Hess and Reineke. The real challenge is trying to figure out whom the bones belong to — and in many cases, they have only a few possessions found around a body to use as clues.
This is where Colibrí finds its niche. With a limited budget, the group of six staff members, including Reineke, use their training as cultural anthropologists to identify the people whose remains are recovered along the border.
It’s a unique solution to an incredibly difficult problem, where often the only possessions people have on them when they die is some money, maybe a few photos and, more often than not, a couple of phone numbers and a laminated prayer card of St. Christopher, the Catholic saint of travel.
Jewelry or certain clothing items, such as an insignia on a hat, might give clues to regions where people are from. A tattoo or missing teeth might also help identify remains.
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Dr. Gregory Hess and NationSwell reporter Joseph Darius Jaafari examine remains found in the desert.

Since 2012, Reineke and her team have been able to compile missing persons reports — hundreds per year — that include such details from family members. It’s her team’s job to match them with the bodies that are found.
“For example, we might get a missing person’s report, which says when the person was the last seen alive,” Reineke says. “We then open the files of the unidentified at the beginning of July of that year, and one by one look for any clues. We know that he was missing this tooth, so I flip past any females and anybody who does have a tooth there. Then we get to the point of, ‘Well, it’s a pretty strong comparison but it’s really not strong enough to make a positive ID.’”
That process alone is tedious and time-consuming, and it has resulted in about 10 to 12 identifications per year with the help of the medical examiner’s office. And DNA is the surest way to truly identify someone. So two years ago, Colibrí received a $200,000 grant to send DNA samples of living family members to the medical examiner’s office to help identify more bodies.
Now when families call Colibrí for help in identifying remains, mouth swabs are taken and their DNA is logged with the report. That DNA is then matched against bodies brought to the Pima County’s medical examiner office, where Colibrí is also housed.
“Being here means that we can communicate live with each other. We have access to each other’s databases,” says Reineke. “When the medical examiner’s office receives calls from people searching for missing loved ones, we’ll take the missing person’s report and make sure that data gets compared against unidentified human remains.”
The result has been 56 people identified each year using both DNA testing and the anthropological methods cited above. The federal genetics program, in comparison, has identified only a quarter of that number each year.
Despite an onslaught of negative press directed at the Border Patrol — especially after a Mother Jones article detailed the racism and apathy of self-proclaimed “border militia” members fraternizing with Border Patrol agents, and a viral video showed Border Patrol agents kicking over life-saving water stations in the desert — there is an effort within the sprawling agency to help migrants stay alive.
Through microphotography, a process that can be used to reconstruct skin based on small traces of muscle or skin cells left on bones, Vega has been able to identify up to 60 people by matching reconstructed fingerprints with those logged in the U.S. fingerprint data system after previous deportations.
“We’re working with stage four decomposition levels. This is basically skeletal remains with just a little, tiny bit of skin on the hands, and you’re talking highly dehydrated skin, highly decomposed skin, and we’re capturing the rich details that are found under pretty much all the layers of the skin,” Vega says. “It depends on the circumstances, but I can tell you that we have identified bodies that are pretty close to being skeletons.”
Even though the Missing Migrant Program is intertwined with an agency that breeds resentment and fear among the Latino communities in the U.S. Southwest, Vega says they’re doing their best to identify dead bodies in the service of bringing peace and closures to families.
“To save lives, prevent death, obviously that’s our most important mission,” he says. “But if death happens, [we] dignify the process for the families.”
For Santa Cruz, she is still waiting to hear about her son. Her DNA has been logged and Reineke continues to look for Marco, despite the odds of him being found alive.
“When you know that your son may have died in the desert, it changes your life and the lives of your whole family,” says Santa Cruz. “It is an unbearable pain that drives you crazy and makes you lose your mind. You do not want to continue on living without the son you have lost.”

This article is the fourth and final installment of NationSwell’s multimedia series “Aid at the Border,” which explores the impact of humanitarian efforts along the US-Mexico border.

Searching for Lives Lost in the Desert

In the third installment of NationSwell’s “Aid at the Border” multimedia series, which explores humanitarian efforts along the US-Mexico border, we return to California’s Imperial Valley desert to examine the future of Water Station, the nonprofit founded by John Hunter in 2000. For nearly two decades, Hunter has led a team of volunteers as they strategically set out life-saving water for migrants traversing the desert terrain around the border. Now, with Hunter and his wife, Laura, stepping down from the board of directors, Water Station has hired a new president, who has vowed to continue the couple’s goal of providing water in the desert to those who need it most.
With Water Station’s future secured, Hunter is now turning his attention to Armadillos Búsqueda y Rescate, a group of volunteers who perform search and rescue operations for immigrants lost in the desert.
“We get reports from families through Facebook,” says Armadillos founder César Ortigoza. “Once we get the phone number from these people, we will call them and they will let us know where their family members were coming through.” Ortigoza and his team then organize their search efforts around the area where these missing migrants are thought to have disappeared.  

The Armadillos’ mission is a personal one for Ortigoza. At the age of 15, he crossed the border himself as an undocumented immigrant in pursuit of a better life. Even though the journey was not nearly as perilous then as it is today, Ortigoza says his experience motivates him to continue the group’s exhaustive search efforts.
“I wish I never had the misfortune to go through what they have to go through,” says Ortigoza. “So I put myself in their shoes, and that’s what keeps me going.”
Watch Episode 3 of “Aid at the Border” above to see how Hunter and Ortigoza are focusing their efforts on locating the people who have seemingly disappeared without a trace.

This video is the third in a four-part multimedia series, “Aid at the Border,” that explores the impact of humanitarian efforts along the US-Mexico border.

The Unlikely Partnership That’s Saving Lives in the Desert

Episode 2 of NationSwell’s “Aid at the Border” multimedia series, which explores humanitarian efforts along the US-Mexico border, zeroes in on the special relationship between an interfaith organization and the largest federal law enforcement agency in the country.
In the years following Operation Gatekeeper — a 1994 immigration measure that sought to seal off routes into San Diego — migrants began streaming into Arizona, making the Tucson sector one of the busiest at the southern border. By the turn of the century, the U.S. Border Patrol was reporting record-high levels of apprehensions, including more than 600,000 in 2000 alone. That’s when Rev. Robin Hoover founded the migrant-aid nonprofit Humane Borders, made up of a cross-section of Tucson’s faith communities all working toward a common goal: saving immigrant lives.

“If you were out here in the desert and you asked a guy for a drink of water, do you really think he’d say no?” says Bob Feinman, vice chair of Humane Borders. “That’s all it’s about; it’s that simple for us.”
Similar to the San Diego–based aid organization Water Station, Humane Borders maintains 50 fixed water stations throughout the Sonoran desert, where more than 3,000 migrants have died since 1999. Along with the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office, the organization also maintains the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants, a data map that pinpoints the deadliest regions in the desert.

But Humane Borders’ work isn’t limited to providing water and geographic data. They also collaborate with Border Patrol agents in the Tucson sector on a number of campaigns to spread word of the dangers of crossing the border without documents. This partnership is essential to Border Patrol’s mission, says Steven Passement, acting special operations supervisor in the Tucson sector.
“We want to save lives; they want to save lives,” says Agent Passement. “Any kind of water that’s out in these environments is going to save a life.”
Watch Episode 2 of “Aid at the Border” above to see how migrant-aid volunteers and Border Patrol agents have united around a common cause.

This video is the second in a four-part multimedia series, “Aid at the Border,” that explores the impact of humanitarian efforts along the US-Mexico border.

Helping Traumatized Kids

It’s been a devastating summer for child migrants. Over 2,000 kids, some only toddlers, have been separated from their families at the border. With no easy way for these kids to be reunited with their families, experts worry that the trauma the kids are experiencing, be it in the court system or in foster care, is inflicting irreversible damage on their developing brains.
“We’re talking about immigrants who are coming out of situations [that are] already traumatic,” says Michèle Neuhaus, Director of the 0-5 Early Childhood Mental Health Initiative for the Child Center of New York. Neuhaus compares such a child to a “seed” that has been watered and nurtured before suddenly being abandoned. “Getting here was traumatic, but they had [someone] protecting them. But now that person is gone.”
Extreme childhood trauma, now called toxic stress, is not a new concept. It was first introduced in the 1980s by Dr. Vincent Felitti, who, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recruited over 17,000 patients to study obesity. The project, coined the ACEs Study, was a landmark in epidemiologic research, and showed that childhood trauma was linked to almost every major health problem in the U.S.
But its impact on children is only now under scrutiny since the border crisis intensified last month, when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a zero-tolerance policy toward migration, using the threat of parent-child separation to deter illegal border crossings.
Toxic stress at a young age can do irreparable damage to a child’s development. Research has shown that kids who experience trauma have a higher propensity for disease or depression. Other studies have found a correlation between stress and cancers, including skin and breast cancers and rheumatoid arthritis. Over 1,200 pediatricians across the nation are implementing toxic stress therapy into their practices, according to Jane Stevens, founder of ACEs Connection, an online social and news network dedicated to raising awareness about adverse childhood experiences.
Neuhaus, whose work includes researching bonds between parents and young children, says that such bonds are essential in order for a child to fully develop.

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“Any separation from a mother — it’s the most traumatic thing a child can go through,” says child mental health expert Michèle Neuhaus.

“A lot of the trauma [these children are facing] is, what happens next? Any separation from a mother — it’s the most traumatic thing a child can go through. It’s a biological and an emotional bond,” she says.
Though the stress levels these children experience have been well-documented, there is hope that children who experience this trauma can recover from it, so long as the proper therapy is in place.
Stevens says that in order to properly address toxic stress, there needs to be systems in place that actually address the trauma — foremost being a safe environment with parents or a loving caregiver.
“The child needs to be in a safe home,” Stevens tells NationSwell. “When kids get separated from the parents, you understand that that’s extremely traumatic for child and parent.”
If the best way to address toxic stress in children is to put them in a safe environment with people who love them, what do you do when the kids are being subjected to forced separation and trauma, such as those at the center of the border crisis?
Giving children a chance to talk about what they’ve experienced and how they feel about it is key, Neuhaus says. “It helps [us] see how trauma affects [a kid’s] brain and how it affects the behaviors they see.” This storytelling, or building a “trauma narrative,” is an effective tool, she says, in allowing children to take ownership of their trauma and reframe it in an empowering way.
Etiony Aldarondo, an associate dean at the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Miami, created the Immigrant Children Affirmative Network, a booklet that immigrant children can create to tell their stories, along with a board game that helps those children navigate what will happen to them as undocumented migrants in the U.S.
When the source of toxic stress doesn’t directly involve a child’s parents, their role at the outset is still critical.
“Parents are making a lot of honest mistakes,” says Joseph Stachs, a social worker in New York who treats children using a type of therapy called “play” therapy. Speaking generally about the relationships children have with their parents, he says that most kids “have conflicted relationships with their parents.”
Which makes it imperative that parents or caregivers be involved and nurturing in helping treat traumatized children.
For migrant kids, though, that’s not an option, as many of the kids going through immigration courts are facing judges alone, without their parents or even a lawyer by their side. The only hope is that these children are placed with families that recognize the need for supporting kids that are enduring the trauma of family separation.
“Just like a scar will always be there after that accident, it doesn’t define your life,” Neuhaus says. “You can heal from trauma, but it doesn’t go away.”

Aid, and Agua, Along the Border

For the past 25 years, a humanitarian crisis has been quietly raging at the United States–Mexico border. Beginning in 1994, the U.S. implemented a policy of “prevention through deterrence” to stymie the flow of undocumented immigrants at traditional ports of entry. The thought was that by pushing migratory routes into harsher desert terrain, where temperatures can exceed 100 degrees, the number of people attempting to cross the border illegally would drop.
But the policy didn’t work as expected, and instead had an unintended consequence: mass death. In 2000, migrant deaths started to spike, jumping 34 percent from the year prior, according to U.S. Border Patrol. All told, an estimated 10,000 undocumented immigrants have died on the treacherous journey since 1994.
When news of these deaths started making headlines in the late 1990s, inventor and scientist John Hunter decided to take action. In 2000, he founded a nonprofit, called Water Station.
“I just get sick and tired of people dying out here and all this yapping going on, and no one’s doing jack,” Hunter says.
Based in Escondido, California, Water Station was one of the earliest organized humanitarian efforts along the border. Hunter and his wife, Laura, lead a team of volunteers in building “water stations,” or 50-gallon drums filled with jugs of water, which are strategically placed in the Imperial Valley Desert where deaths have been recorded. Now 18 years into its mission, Water Station maintains about 125 stations throughout the deserts of eastern California.
Watch the video above to see how the Hunters’ work is helping to save lives in the harsh deserts along the border.

This video is the first in a four-part multimedia series, “Aid at the Border,” that explores the impact of humanitarian efforts along the US-Mexico border.

Fighting Anti-Immigrant Bias, One Family Tree at a Time

If all Americans were to trace their family history back just a few generations, the overwhelming majority would discover that they’re the products of immigration.
And that would be a good thing, says the journalist and amateur genealogist Jennifer Mendelsohn.
“Every American story, except for the slaves brought here forcibly and Native Americans, goes back to a boat,” Mendelsohn tells NationSwell. “I want people to let go of their immigrant biases by recognizing their own immigrant roots.”
Mendelsohn is trying to drive that point home, especially to those who carry the torch for anti-immigrant policies, such as ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, and instituting a travel ban from Muslim-majority countries. She is the creator of the hashtag #ResistanceGenealogy, which earlier this year exploded in the Twitterverse for its clap-backs against politicians agitating for more restrictive immigration policies.
In a time when shouting down political opponents isn’t helping mend relationships, Mendelsohn’s campaign is reflective of modern social-science research, which suggests that political ideology doesn’t necessarily budge when confronted with facts that are at odds with one’s beliefs.
The only way people change, the thinking goes, is through a truly personal experience — like finding out your family’s background looks a lot different than what you grew up believing.


The Baltimore-based Mendelsohn became interested in genealogy after a personal project led her to research the history of her husband’s grandmother, who came to the U.S. after the Holocaust had claimed her entire family. She thought she had no living relatives left. Turns out, she was wrong.
“It led to this emotional reunion that no one ever in a million years would’ve expected to happen,” says Mendelsohn, who used her reporting chops to dig deep into immigration records and find three living relatives of her in-law.
As the political climate in the U.S. turns ever more toward nationalism, Mendelsohn, armed with a new appreciation for tracing one’s ancestry, has found that the best way to confront it is by pulling back the curtain on those beating the anti-immigration drum the loudest.

To that end, Mendelsohn has traced the genealogy of Republican (and vocally anti-immigrant) TV personality Tomi Lahren, who wrote on Twitter, “Respect our laws and we welcome you. If not, bye.” Mendelsohn discovered that Lahren’s great-great-grandfather was indicted in 1917 for falsifying his naturalization papers when he came to the U.S. from Russia (he was acquitted, thus paving the way for Lahren to be born an American citizen).

Most recently, she took on notorious former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, not exactly known for his friendly views on immigration. Despite the current uproar over “chain migration” — a conservative buzz phrase for the family-reunification policy that allows vetted immigrants to sponsor family members — Mendelsohn found that Arpaio’s Italian relatives had brought over more than a dozen people this way.

Family trees, she says, are very much like mythology. In one instance, a man whom Mendelsohn was working with told her that his immigrant grandfather was inspired to adopt the surname “Fruchter” after coming across a fruit seller on his way through Ellis Island. It was a lie; Mendelsohn discovered that Fruchter was the name on his grandfather’s passport, meaning he couldn’t have changed it when he said he did.
“These myths are well and good in a family context. It’s harmless; no one is hurt or injured,” says Mendelsohn. “But people are making policy based on those ‘fruit-seller’ myths and pronouncements based on those myths, like immigrants are dangerous or bottom-feeders.”
That is the crux of resistance genealogy, says Mendelsohn, who hopes that the more people understand their own histories, the more empathetic they’ll become toward immigration issues.
“All these things people throw up to divide people and label people and put people down — all of that falls away when you realize how alike we are. It gives racists and bigots less of a wedge,” she says.

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Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in New York.


There are isolated, but very public, examples of this social theory at work in American politics. Before 2011, for example, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) was fiercely against gay marriage. Then his son came out.
“At the time, my position on marriage for same-sex couples was rooted in my faith tradition that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman,” Portman wrote in an editorial for the Columbus Dispatch. “Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love.”
Then there’s the case of Jeff Jeans, an Arizona business owner and registered Republican, who initially opposed the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature legislation. That is, until he was diagnosed with cancer at 49 and given six weeks to live. He told House Speaker Paul Ryan in a CNN town hall last year that he changed his mind on the healthcare law, adding that thanks to Obamacare, “I’m standing here alive.”
Despite these examples of an about-face, Mendelsohn is wary that her campaign will succeed on a large scale. Still, the recent attention given to #ResistanceGenealogy is forcing some people to take a closer look at their own roots. And so she soldiers on.
The only person who has publicly responded to Mendelsohn’s research on their behalf is Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who told the Washington Post, “The United States is a completely different country now. The idea that [having] a relative who came 150 years ago means I have to have a specific view on immigration? It’s so dumb it’s hard to believe you have to respond to it.”
That’s not a surprise for Mendelsohn, who says she doesn’t lose sleep over Carlson not liking her.
“The highest compliment that someone’s paid this project is that it’s patriotic,” she says. “We love this country and what it represents, and so much is bound up in the opportunities that this country afforded.”  

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a quote to Joe Arpaio and misstated the number of immigrants his family sponsored (it was 13, not eight). It also stated the author’s in-law reunited with two relatives, not three.

A Prescription for the Doctor-Patient Language Barrier

Even if you’re a native English speaker who’s lived their whole life in the U.S., the healthcare system can be a nightmare.
Labyrinthine call systems are only the start. You’ve also got to find a doctor you trust; figure out the care you need; decipher what your insurance will cover; learn how and when to take (or refill) prescriptions; and remember to make follow-up appointments. If you’re a parent, you’ll need to repeat the exhausting process for each of your children. And if you’re employed full-time, you’ve also got to find the time to juggle your healthcare before, after or in between work hours.
Now imagine navigating that same confusing terrain without being able to speak fluent English.
For the millions of Americans who don’t, ConsejoSano (translation: “healthy advice”) is here to help. The Southern California-based telehealth startup offers the only health platform tailored to address the needs of multicultural, non-English-speaking patients.  
Most of the clients ConsejoSano works with are health plans, employers, government programs and at-risk providers who are united by a common cause: Motivating the people most likely to fall through the cracks of the U.S. healthcare system learn how to master it — in their own language. Through a suite of technological solutions, including multi-channel messaging and data analytics, along with a cadre of bilingual employees, ConsejoSano helps the marginalized and underserved access the care they need now and improve their overall health literacy.
The company’s initial focus was on helping Hispanic patients. Services are free, around-the-clock and help tackle issues related to costs, language barriers and immigration status.
“In the U.S., nearly 60 million people speak Spanish; 20 million of those only speak Spanish. Another third can only manage basic communication in English, like ordering food at a restaurant,” explains Abner Mason, ConsejoSano’s founder and CEO. “Ask them to explain — in English — that they have a piercing pain in their lower back, and they don’t have the tools. Or if a doctor wants to explain to them, also in English, why their 12-month-old baby needs vaccinations, they won’t get the full understanding.”
Although Hispanics make up over 17 percent of America’s population, “Spanish-speaking doctors represent only 4 percent of our physicians,” notes Amon Anderson, director of Acumen, an investor in ConsejoSano. “In four short years, ConsejoSano has quickly expanded its reach across Southern California … escalating thousands of cases to healthcare providers and ensuring Hispanic patients receive the care they need.”

ConsejoSano healthcare
ConsejoSano founder Abner Mason says it’s his mission to never leave any patient behind.

Today, ConsejoSano also provides services to speakers of Arabic, Farsi, Mandarin, Cantonese, Armenian and Tagalog, among other languages. Currently, the company counts about 300,000 users and hopes to see that number climb to 1 million by the end of 2018.
But ConsejoSano does far more than translating a generic automated call into a different language.
For starters, initial communications from ConsejoSano to patients are likely to happen via text.
“One thing all cultures have in common across the board is text messaging,” says Mason. “Many communities have loved ones and friends in other countries, so they’ve become accustomed to using WhatsApp or other platforms. It’s just how people communicate now.”
The next step: calling a patient and talking to them in their own language, with an emphasis on their cultural background. (ConsejoSano’s multilingual employees follow a script that has been reviewed and approved by the company’s medical director.)
“Say you’re going to convince a mom that her baby needs vaccinations,” says Mason. “If you use the same message in Spanish to communicate with a mom in San Diego as you do with a mom in Miami, you won’t get the same results. One culture comes from Mexico, the other may be someone who comes from Puerto Rico or Cuba. They don’t have the same traditions or culture.”
Patient content is consciously tailored too.
“Often people design materials for English speakers, then translate it into other languages. But because they’re not starting with culture, just hitting Google Translate, the signal it can send to the patient is, ‘Who I am doesn’t really matter. This message isn’t really for me,’” says Mason.
Dr. Alfredo Ratniewski is executive chief medical officer for Borrego Health, a ConsejoSano client whose 23 locations serve Medicaid patients in California’s San Diego, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. He’s seen firsthand how ConsejoSano campaigns have coaxed parents to bring their children in for wellness checkups, encouraged women to have annual mammograms and convinced older adults to agree to colonoscopies so they can be screened for colon cancer.
“That cultural approach makes all the difference in the world,” says Ratniewski.
Before launching ConsejoSano, Mason founded the Workplace Wellness Council of Mexico, which is now the leading corporate wellness company in that country. He also served as a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS and was the founder and executive director of the AIDS Responsibility Project.
What causes people to ignore their healthcare is a puzzle he tries to solve every day. And every day, the answer is different.
“If an Arabic woman needs to come in for a pap smear, you need to build a trusted communication channel not just with her, but for [her] family,” Mason says by way of example. “If someone needs a prostate exam, the reasons why need to be explained and in a way that also deals appropriately with their culture.”
Our current political climate can make that tricky. Many people don’t trust “the system.”  They worry loved ones may be taken away by ICE. In other words, says Mason, “they don’t feel equal.”
Because of that, “we’ve got to get the culture right, the language right, the mode of communication right — and all that has to be built on a foundation of trust,” Mason says. “We get responses all the time, from patients who say, ‘This is the first time someone’s treated me like a first-class citizen.’”

A Dream Curriculum for Immigrant Students

Searching for a better life, Miguel Gonzalez’s family brought him to Dalton, Ga., from Guerrero, Mexico, as a child.
“My whole life in this country has been uncertain as far as my immigration status,” says Gonzalez.
Despite this, Gonzalez thrived. He attended college, landed a job as a teacher, and in 2012, became a “Dreamer” through the Obama administration’s establishment of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
Now, Gonzalez tries to help kids from similar circumstances through the Newcomer Academy, an English language program for Spanish-language students grades six and up.
As politicians negotiate the future of DACA, these children need a place to process their feelings about their immigration status. Watch the video above to see how the Newcomer Academy and teachers like Gonzalez go beyond simply acclimating immigrant children to the American school system by creating an environment where they can feel successful and thrive.

The 10 Most Inspiring Books of 2017

This year’s top news stories sometimes made it tough to remain optimistic, given the mass shootings, hurricanes and wildfires, controversial legislation and the threat of nuclear war. In times like these, when the daily headlines can feel so oppressively grim, we often turn to longer works to put our historical moment in context — to show us that there’s a better way forward in organizing healthcare, dealing with crime, addressing climate change and stabilizing government. That’s where this list comes in. Spanning both fiction and non-, essays and memoirs, these are the books that gave us hope in an otherwise tumultuous year.

Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison to Recovery to Leading the Fight for Incarcerated Women” By Susan Burton and Cari Lynn

After her 5-year-old son was accidentally killed by a cop, Susan Burton descended into a crack addiction that landed her in prison — over and over again. As detailed in this heartfelt memoir, Burton eventually got the help she needed and now runs A New Way of Life, a scrappy nonprofit that offers sober housing and treatment for formerly incarcerated women at five safe houses in South Los Angeles.

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes” By Dan Egan

The Great Lakes used to be a cesspool of industrial chemicals and municipal sewage, until Congress intervened in 1972. A massive cleanup followed, but that ongoing recovery is being threatened today by invasive species inadvertently dumped into the lakes. Dan Egan, a reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, lays out a natural history of how foreign fish and filter-feeders arrived (then spread through the nation’s waterways) and how government regulators can adapt.

Unwarranted: Policing Without Permission” By Barry Friedman

Ever since the unrest in Ferguson in 2014, policing’s become a hot-button topic. Rather than blaming cops, Barry Friedman, a law professor at New York University, tries to move the conversation forward, arguing that judges and ordinary citizens alike need to do more to restore the Fourth Amendment’s protections against “unreasonable search and seizure” in a time of heightened surveillance and militarization among law enforcement.

Janesville: An American Story” By Amy Goldstein

On a frozen morning in December 2008, the nation’s largest automaker, General Motors, closed down its oldest assembly plant, laying off thousands of workers and hollowing out Janesville, Wisc., the hometown of Rep. Paul Ryan. Amy Goldstein, a reporter at the Washington Post, picks up the story there, poignantly describing the efforts to shore up a vanishing middle class.

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions” By Valeria Luiselli

Why did you come to the United States? What countries did you pass through? Did anything happen on your trip that scared or hurt you? Depending on how they answer those questions, unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Central America are either granted a pass or sent back. Writer Valeria Luiselli, a volunteer who administered the questionnaire, details her first-hand experiences with the immigration system in this 120-page essay.

Teeth: The Story of Beauty, Inequality, and the Struggle for Oral Health in America” By Mary Otto

One in three low-income adults avoids smiling. That’s a consequence of treating dentistry as optional, allowing tooth decay and gum disease that afflict the poor to be written off as failures of personal responsibility. Mary Otto, a veteran health journalist, makes a stirring plea to close an unacknowledged gap in our medical system.

Ghost of the Innocent Man: A True Story of Trial and Redemption” By Benjamin Rachlin

In 1988, after a neighbor came forward to claim a $1,000 reward, Willie Grimes was convicted of breaking into a 69-year-old widow’s house and raping her twice. Two decades into Grimes’s life sentence, DNA evidence exonerated him. In this meticulously researched book, Benjamin Rachlin explores North Carolina’s Innocence Inquiry Commission, the first body of its kind to hear wrongful conviction pleas and restore integrity to a system that’s locked up thousands of innocent people.

The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic” By Ganesh Sitaraman

The Founding Fathers curiously left any reference to wealth out of the Constitution, believing that America was a country where citizens were born equal, rather than becoming so, as Alexis de Tocqueville later put it. In a treatise packed with historical anecdotes and political theory, Ganesh Sitaraman, a Vanderbilt law professor, makes the case that America’s “middle-class constitution” is straining under an economic divide and offers corrective reforms.

A Kind of Freedom” By Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

The lone work of fiction on our list, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s epic debut novel follows three generations of a black New Orleans family, from World War II to the War on Drugs of the 1980s to Hurricane Katrina at the dawn of a new century. Even as they struggle to get by, in a country where racial progress has always been fitful, the family members display remarkable endurance.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” By Timothy Snyder

Another book about how to save our democracy, this slim volume dispels the notion that a republic can persevere without an engaged citizenry. “History does not repeat, but it does instruct,” Timothy Snyder, a Yale professor, begins, as he shares how totalitarianism gobbled up Eastern Europe a century ago and what can be done to prevent its creeping approach today.

Borderwise: The Program That’s Making It Easier to Pursue the American Dream

One word described Luis Aponte’s experience living as an undocumented immigrant in the United States: helpless.
“Not [being] able to drive, not being able to travel or those things. Those things really wear you down,” says Aponte, a 40-year-old project manager for a parking company in Jersey City, N.J. “While I was here without documents, my father passed away, and I was unable to go and see him. Things like that — that makes you sad.”
After marrying a U.S. citizen, Aponte spent thousands of dollars trying to become one himself. He visited multiple immigration lawyers, but the bureaucracy — and the hefty price tag — of the American immigration system made it seem like an opportunity out of reach.
Aponte’s experience isn’t unique. Millions of undocumented immigrants and those with expired temporary visas live in this country because the process of becoming an American citizen can take decades and cost tens of thousands of dollars. It’s this flawed system that inspired a Canadian to create a tech workaround that eliminates the minutiae of immigration law and makes it simpler (and cheaper) for migrants to achieve U.S. citizenship.
“I started looking into the process, Googling around, trying to figure it out, and after a couple of hours of banging my head against the wall, I gave up and started looking into hiring an immigration lawyer … but it cost me thousands of dollars,” says Jeremy Peskin, co-founder of Borderwise, a digital platform that drastically reduces the time required to fill out immigration forms — from hours to just 10 minutes — by turning the mounds of paperwork into a simple survey.
Since its launch in 2016, Borderwise has helped hundreds of immigrants begin the application process.
For years, Peskin tried to gain citizenship, holding employment on what he describes as an “alphabet soup” of work visas. After marrying his wife (a American citizen), he confronted the problems of the immigration system face-to-face.
“I sat with my immigration lawyer in his office, and we started discussing my case. And I could see as he sort of walked through a decision tree that he had spent years learning to figure out exactly which documents and forms were required to compile my application because there’s potentially over 12 different forms, over 40 pages of paper work,” Peskin says. “I realized that if we could have an expert design a piece of software, we could use technology to dramatically streamline the process of preparing these applications.”
Working to bring his idea of the American Dream to fruition, Peskin enlisted the help of his own immigration attorney, James Pittman, who at first was hesitant of the idea.
“Immigration law is way too complex for that,” Pittman recalls saying. “There’s [sic] just too many exceptions. No matter how much you program a software, you can never duplicate a human being in all of the complexity and nuance.”
Peskin and Pittman looked to machine-learning technology to solve for the intricacies, complications and problem solving that immigration lawyers typically handle.
The result? A two-pronged platform: one portion used by immigrants themselves who want to become a citizen through family sponsorship; the other, a cloud-based version used by law firms. Both streamline immigration paperwork, while also giving those applying for citizenship more insight into how the process works.
By eliminating much of the work typically performed by attorneys, Borderwise has made the entire process more affordable.
“The lowest an immigration lawyer would ever charge for a family-based green card application is $2,000, and frequently, they would charge $5,000,” Peskin says. “The median income for an immigrant in the U.S. is $40,000. So for many just preparing a green card application, it’s close to 10 percent of their annual wages.”
Borderwise charges just $500 — almost 90 percent less than traditional methods.
Aponte, who used Borderwise, says the platform was simple, cheap and easy. What’s more, the process evoked strong emotions about his father, who passed away in Aponte’s home country of Colombia.
“I’m 100 percent sure he would have been super happy … with my wife and my beautiful family,” he says. “He would have been extremely happy.”
The 2017 AllStars program is produced in partnership with Comcast NBCUniversal and celebrates social entrepreneurs who are powering solutions with innovative technology. Visit from Oct. 2 to Nov. 2 to vote for your favorite AllStar. The winner will receive the AllStar Award, a $10,000 grant to help further his or her work advocating for change.
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