Posted on March 13, 2007

Immigrants Anonymous in Death

Theresa Vargas, Washington Post, March13, 2007


No one keeps count of how many immigrants go unidentified each year, and without a name, it is nearly impossible to know whether they are illegal. But law-enforcement officials say that as the foreign-born population has increased, so have these types of cases. Hispanics pose special investigative challenges because of their hesitation to deal with authorities for fear of deportation and the sparse paper trail of their existence. Because so many don’t want to be on the radar in life, they fall off it in death.

About a third of the region’s foreign-born population is Hispanic, but Hispanics make up more than half of the undocumented population, said Jeffrey S. Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center. In a forthcoming study, the Urban Institute estimates that in 2003 and 2004, 345,000 illegal immigrants lived in the region.

Ricardo Juarez of Mexicans Without Borders said this group’s vulnerability in death starts with its tentative position in life. Because they fear deportation, they avoid police. And because they cannot obtain legitimate licenses but must get to work, they carry false ones, he said. “People do things like that because they are scared,” Juarez said. “It’s a survival skill.” As far as the consequences of going unidentified after death, he added: “It’s a symptom that something is not right.”

Two young Hispanic men, one possibly a teenager, were just skeletons when they were found in a wooded area off Interstate 95 in Caroline County, Va. They wore Rustler jeans and western-style shirts with pearl buttons. The older man wore a belt with the name Silvano and a pendent of the Virgin Mary that says in Spanish, “Pray for us.”

“How they got there, I got no idea,” said James R. Lyons, a special agent with the Virginia State Police. “Where they were going? Where they were coming from? No idea.”

Detectives say they often work backward when investigating these cases, whether unattended natural deaths, homicides or traffic fatalities. A Mexican flag on a belt buckle might lead them to the Mexican Embassy. A CVS card in a pocket might lead them to a place that might then lead them to a friend who might know a relative. They check missing person reports, run fingerprints through criminal and government databases and sometimes file “Black Notices” with international police.


Although most John and Jane Does are eventually identified, sometimes after weeks or months, others will lie nameless in the morgue until space runs out, then will be turned over to local authorities for burial or cremation.

At the end of last year, the bodies of three unidentified men, believed to be immigrants, lay in the Northern Virginia medical examiner’s office, said William H. Whildin, a former Fairfax detective who is an investigator for the Fairfax office.

Medical examiners must also stray from normal means of investigation. Fingerprints are one of the first things they use to try to identify someone, then dental records.

“But where do I go to get those records?” Whildin asked.

The difficulty, he said, starts at the beginning, with a name that never seems to be correct.

“That creates major problems for everything: death certificates, autopsy reports, the lab reports,” he said. “The same thing with age. Are they really 35?”

In May, park police in Wheaton found a dead man in a parking lot. Police got a name and age—Roque Jacinto Rivera, 33—but when they called family members in Honduras to notify them, they were told the name belonged to the man’s dead brother, said Blanca Kling, the Hispanic liaison in Montgomery County. The man’s real name was Josue Lagos-Rivera, and he was 30.

Kling also notified a family after a Hispanic man was hit by a car. He was a John Doe for several weeks; the family never reported him missing because he was known to disappear for days at a time, she said.

“When we went to the house, I asked them if they knew where their father was. They said he always went to visit his friend,” she said. “They were devastated.”

No database for families to search

Fierro said part of the reason many immigrants go unidentified and unclaimed is that there is no central database for families to search. Information such as fingerprints and dental information are entered into the National Crime Information Center, but the public cannot search it without a law enforcement official’s help, she said. Some states have detailed databases for unidentified bodies, but Fierro said that doesn’t help a woman in Mexico who has not heard from her husband in two months and does not know where he last lived.