HISTORY OF COLIBRÍ
Our work began in 2006 with the Missing Migrant Project, a small volunteer initiative inside the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner designed to organize information about people who were missing on the border in the hopes that this information would help identify the hundreds of individuals who were being examined by the forensic scientists in that office. This project was a collaboration between Dr. Bruce Anderson, the forensic anthropologist at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, and Dr. Robin Reineke, a cultural anthropologist and a graduate student at the time.
In 2013, our co-founders — Robin Reineke, William Masson, Chelsea Halstead, and Reyna Araibi — grew the Missing Migrant Project into the nonprofit, nongovernmental organization the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, an expanded and more comprehensive effort to address the needs of families of the missing and to continue our work on cases of missing and unidentified individuals.
The Colibrí Center for Human Rights is a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization working to end migrant death and related suffering on the U.S.-Mexico border. We partner with families and forensic scientists to find missing people and help identify individuals who have died crossing the border. We collect detailed missing persons reports and DNA samples from families searching for the missing and we work closely with medical examiners to compare the information we collect about missing individuals to the information available about deceased individuals. We also work to bear witness to the loss of life and hold space for families to build community, share stories, and help raise consciousness about this human rights crisis.
Our work approaches the crisis on the border through a human rights perspective, focusing on three main program areas:
The Missing Migrant Project & DNA Program
We started our Missing Migrant Project in 2006 by collecting detailed reports for people who disappeared while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Throughout the years, we have spoken with thousands of families in the U.S. and throughout Latin America and managed to build a comprehensive and innovative database that now contains more than 3,000 open missing persons cases. In close partnership with the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, we compare the information we collect about missing individuals to the information that forensic scientists determine through rigorous examination of those who have lost their lives and been recovered from the borderlands.
In the first ten years of our work, Colibrí helped in the resolution of hundreds of cases of missing and unidentified people and directly facilitated more than 150 positive identifications. Our goal has always been to create a safe, humane, and effective process for families of missing migrants to find answers. We believe that every family has a right to justice — the first step to obtaining justice is getting answers about what happened to a missing loved one.
In 2016, we developed our DNA Program to build on the Missing Migrant Project and expand our efforts to help identify people who lost their lives on the border. Many of these individuals are still unidentified and separated from their families despite thorough forensic examination. Because of the uniquely harsh environment and the remoteness of the areas of desert where people are crossing, it can be extremely challenging to try to identify people through non-genetic methods like fingerprints and photo comparison. Although Colibrí still specializes in comparing unique details like tattoos and personal belongings, in this context, DNA is the best available hope of identification for most cases. As part of the forensic examination process, the medical examiner collects a DNA sample from each unidentified person who is examined by their office. They send these samples to a private lab where, over the years, they have created a database of more than 1,000 cases of unidentified individuals. Through our DNA Program, Colibrí provides the other half of this genetic puzzle. We travel to different cities to confidentially and safely collect DNA samples from families who wish to have their DNA compared against that of unidentified individuals. We send these samples to the same private lab in the hope of producing blind matches between the unidentified and the families, matches that the medical examiner then confirms. Once someone is identified, Colibrí works to notify the family and to facilitate the next steps in the process.
Since we started this program in 2016, we have sampled more than 583 relatives searching for missing loved ones and we have been able to facilitate 45+ positive identifications. We are continually expanding the services we are able to provide to families through this program.
La Red de Familiares (The Family Network)
The Family Network is a community of mutual support and solidarity between families and friends of migrants who disappeared while attempting to cross the US-Mexico border. It is a space in which families of the disappeared can come to know others going through the same difficult situation, building a network of trust and support as they wait for answers and navigate the many obstacles of the search. United by the experience of a disappeared loved one, members of the Family Network find sanctuary in the collective power of witness and solidarity.
The Family Network consists of three components: a private virtual group, local comités in major cities across the United States, and a referral network of allied mental health and legal specialists. The comités are the heart of the Network, meeting regularly to provide a space in which families can support each other, articulate their needs, and shape the future of the Network. The virtual group serves as an open discussion forum for families to connect from afar, sharing stories and advice. The referral network exists to attend to families’ individualized needs. It also opens new channels for collaborative learning and support between practitioners and families of the disappeared, whose specific needs are often under-attended and misunderstood.
Historias y Recuerdos
Historias y Recuerdos is a testimony project offered by the Colibrí Center for Human Rights to families of those who have been lost on the U.S.-Mexico border. The intent behind this project is to give families the opportunity to reflect, remember, and share their stories about a lost loved one in a space dedicated to listening to the families, honoring the lost person, and recording these beautiful remembrances for future preservation and sharing.
In our years of work to accompany families in their searches for missing loved ones, Colibrí has also had the sacred privilege of bearing witness to their stories. We have listened as relatives narrate everything from why their loved one chose to cross the border, to the silly childhood prank that left them with a scar. Each time a family chooses to share these types of intimate memories with us, we can sense the love they feel for their lost person and we recognize the power these stories hold. We have come to believe that this power is twofold: first, for the families themselves, but also for the public.
Interested families or family members sit down one-on-one with our staff and record their testimonies about their individual lost loved one — a unique and irreplaceable human being. We work with each family or family member to determine how they want their story to be recorded — audio or video — and what level of privacy they feel comfortable with. The conversation centers on the individual person being honored. Our hope is that the act of sharing memories with someone who is there to listen and honor along with them will be special, and potentially healing for families.
Beyond the power that sharing stories has for honoring and healing on a family level, we also recognize how important these stories are for public understanding about the border and migration. Too often, the conversation about immigration becomes one about numbers and abstractions, not about individual human beings. Bearing witness to the families’ stories by listening to what they have to share is the most beautiful and powerful way to begin to recognize the human cost of the border. It also calls on people and communities to honor the lives lost in this terrain in an act of collective recognition, acknowledgment, and remembrance.
HONORS AND AWARDS
– Echoing Green
– Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award from the Institute for Policy Studies, 2014
– Award for Excellence in Global Service from the Center for English as a Second Language and the Office of Global Initiatives at the University of Arizona, 2014
– Recognition of Outstanding Commitment to Social Responsibility from the University of Arizona Honors College, awarded to Colibrí Co-Founder Chelsea Halstead in 2014
– 40 Under 40 Award from the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, awarded to Colibrí Co-Founder Robin Reineke in 2014