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Colibri Center launch puts human faces to border issues

The goal is reuniting unidentified bodies with their families and humanizing the immigration debate, the founders of the Colibri Center for Human Rights said during the organization's launch party Saturday, which featured the local premiere of the award-winning documentary "Who is Dayani Cristal?"

The Tucson-based group hopes to establish the most comprehensive data set on missing border crossers and unidentified remains along the U.S.-Mexico border. The center's debut, attended by about 400 people, included a question-and-answer session with cofounders Robin Reineke and William Masson, film director Marc Silver, and staff from the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner.

"Unfortunately the discourse on immigration and border has confused migrants with criminals and it's allowed us to dehumanize them," said Reineke. "We're very proud of what Marc has produced in the film which basically covers the issue from a very human centered approach."

Colibri, which is supported by the Ford Foundation, works closely with the Medical Examiner and runs an internship program in collaboration with the University of Arizona’s Honor’s College.

Silver and producer Gael Garcia Bernal's documentary features the work of Pima's ME office in identifying the remains of border crossers.

Likewise the stories of the people in the Colibri database can be "disruptive" through adding to conversations about immigration, debates about policy and general discourse about these issues in new ways, said Colibri's other cofounder, Masson.

"Problems are deeply ingrained, they're difficult to unpack," Masson said. "What I think you'll see in the movie if you haven't seen the film is that this is a deeply human condition and is a deeply human story."

At one point or another, it's that human connection that got the attention of each Colibri staff member.

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For Reyna Araibi, that connection took hold as she was taking missing persons reports during an earlier stage of the database's development. Now it drives her work as Colibri's outreach coordinator.

"I was so glad I had the experience talking to families before hand because it really tied to me very personally to this issue," Araibi said.

For the Pima ME's office, looking for names to go with unidentified bodies found in the desert, this connection to family members is crucial.

The Colibri Center uses data collected from families of missing persons and items found in their work in the desert to help identify unknown bodies discovered in the desert of Southern Arizona.

Many remains are difficult to identify when found, and families of those missing are often hesitant to report disappearances. This has contributed to Pima County having one of the highest rates of unidentified bodies nationally.

The key to solving these cases usually lies in linking the families of missing persons to the Medical Examiner staff to confirm identities through indicators including clothing, scars, tattoos, dental work and DNA tests.

In what has been described as a funnel effect, illegal border crossings in Southern Arizona began to rise after U.S. immigration officials implemented tougher border enforcement through Operation Gatekeeper in California and Operation Hold the Line in Texas in the 1990s.

Combined with increased patrols and other security measures, border crossers found themselves on foot in increasingly remote and dangerous landscapes - and fatalities rose quickly, to 463 reported by Border Patrol in fiscal year 2012. Many of the bodies are discovered by local ranchers, hikers and law enforcement.

Working to identify remains and reunite families made the human costs clear to everyone involved, including the families waiting for answers and the staff who work to close each case.

Each case is a crisis for each family - and watching the number of cases grow has been like watching a natural disaster in slow motion, said Chelsea Halstead, Colibri's program manager and first hire.

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"This tragedy has been happening for so long," Halstead said. "It doesn't show signs of stopping and it's kind of a sustained a tragedy that's been drawn out over 10 years."

Yet those involved need the same kind of services as a family outreach center set up to deal with emergencies like accidents and natural disasters.

Now that Colibri Center is up and running, Masson said his focus is on making the organization strong and capable of adapting to future needs without losing its focus.

"If we grow or when we take our next steps, we do that in a way that still aligned with kind of our values and what were hoping to change," Masson said. "The thing that impresses me always so much about this or about the work here has been how much people are willing to give to solve, to work on this issue."

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Steven Higginbotham

The Colibri Center for Human Rights official launch event followed a screening of 'Who is Dayni Cristal?' with a question and answer panel featuring Gene Hernandez of the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, Colibri's Robin Reineke and Kat Rodriguez, and Victor Braitberg from the University of Arizona Honors College.

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