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Jul 12, 2012 10:23 AM

AZ ranks 3rd in total cases of unidentified remains

TUCSON- Every year illegal immigrants pass through the Arizona-Mexico border. Some are in search of a better life, others in search of cash, smuggling drugs and people into the United States. Whatever the reason, the journey is now earning Arizona a not so flattering title.

A federal database recently ranked Arizona 3rd among the states with the highest number of unidentified remains. The only other states with more cases are New York and California.

"The reason we're number three is principally because of migrant deaths," Pima County Medical Examiner Dr. Gregory Hess says.

According to the database, across the country there are currently more than 8,500 cases of unidentified human remains. More than 1,000 of those are in Arizona. "Likely most of those people died due to the environment, being too hot, hypothermia," Hess says.

The heat makes it even more difficult to identify bodies because it makes them decompose faster. But Hess says even if a body is found with an identification, it might not be accurate. "Lets say someone was apprehended by border patrol in the past, that might be an alias and so it might not be that person at all," Hess says.

The Office of the Medical Examiner works closely with border patrol and human rights organizations like Derechos Humanos, to try and identify as many remains as possible.

"We take a lot of the missing reports and the medical examiner has the job of trying to compare missing person reports to the unidentified remains they have in the morgue, to see if they can match those up," says Kat Rodriguez of Derechos Humanos.

But today there are still nearly 700 cases of unidentified remains open in Pima County. Hess says he can only think of one way that number will stop increasing. "Basically waiting until the migration pattern changes," Hess says.

So far in 2012 there have been nearly 90 cases of unidentified remains in Pima County. Hess says there are typically 184 cases each year.

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