At the medical examiner’s office in Tucson, the dead man was taken to the autopsy theater. There, two technicians and a pathologist in aprons, hair covers and face masks began moving about him with dolorous expertise and talking to one another in sentence fragments. One climbed a rolling ladder to photograph the body from above as another removed the clothing and probed the hems, felt the inner panels and inspected the belt and the tags and the labels. Migrants often travel with no identification or fake identification, but they can secret away genuine documents or phone numbers in their clothing. The technician didn’t find any of those things, though from the pants he pulled a nearly empty wallet and a pocket-size Gideon Bible with a blue plastic cover. The photographer fetched an infrared camera and through the viewfinder inspected the man’s limbs and torso, looking for tattoos. “My gut feeling is this guy doesn’t have any,” he said. He couldn’t say why, exactly. “It’s just my sense.”
He was right. His sense came of long experience. He had inspected more U.B.C.s, as the medical examiner calls them — undocumented border crossers — than he could count. The man on Bird Nest Hill was U.B.C. No.104 for the year, and it was only September. In the mid-1990s, the federal government introduced a policy of pushing undocumented migrants away from border cities and into increasingly remote locations. The policy persisted, and as it did, more people died. According to the Border Patrol, just under 8,000 migrants have turned up dead on the Southern border since 1998. The real number is probably much higher, but even going by the Border Patrol’s estimates, that is a rate of about one migrant death per day, every day of the last 22 years.
Slightly less than half of those deaths occur in southern Arizona, most in the Sonoran Desert. Almost all the bodies found there end up at the medical examiner’s office in Tucson. This fact has become widely known beyond the city, and every day the office receives calls about the missing from desperate families and foreign consulates.
The desert reduces its victims with barbarous celerity, and few of them are identifiable by outward appearance. The man on Bird Nest Hill was nearly mummified, his muscles and organs autolyzed and leached out, his eye sockets full of mud and insect carapaces. On the autopsy report, his weight was 38 pounds. That was heavier than many. Often only bones turn up.
Done with the examination, the pathologist and technicians leaned in to look at the man’s hands. Could the fingers be printed? “We can take them off,” a technician said, holding a scalpel apprehensively, “but I don’t know how well they’ll print.” Nevertheless, she severed both hands below the thumbs, placed them in a clear plastic bucket and poured in sodium hydroxide to rehydrate the skin. In a few days, she would see if the patterns of his fingertip pads had re-emerged.