By Andrew Hay
(Reuters) – Human rights advocates on Friday pushed the U.S. government for access to an FBI-run DNA database to help identify the remains of thousands of immigrants who have disappeared on the U.S.-Mexico border.
U.S. officials pledged continued talks on identifying remains but said they were limited by U.S. law on what database information they could make public.
The comments came at a hearing in Boulder, Colorado, of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), part of the Organization of American States.
The Forensic Border Coalition (FBC), a group of forensic scientists, academics and human rights organizations, sought the hearing after what it said were six fruitless years of talks with U.S. officials.
The FBC wants to carry out comparisons of thousands of DNA samples its members have taken from missing migrants’ relatives with DNA of immigrant remains collected by the National DNA Index System (NDIS) database.
“There is no legal or technical reason that justifies the United States’ refusal to conduct a large-scale comparison,” said Roxanna Altholz, a professor at Berkeley Law School and FBC member.
U.S. Border Patrol statistics indicate nearly 7,000 deceased migrants have been found on the U.S. side of the border since the late 1990s. Over 2,500 people are missing and hundreds of remains are unidentified in morgues and cemeteries, the FBC said.
Among obstacles to getting access to the NDIS are requirements all DNA samples submitted to the database be taken in the presence of law enforcement and only law enforcement may access its information.
Families of many missing migrants are reluctant to approach police because of their own legal status or because of distrust of authorities and instead submit DNA to FBC-member organizations, the group said.
Paula Wolff, a lawyer representing the FBI, said her agency was committed to finding a solution to an issue she described as “extremely devastating” for relatives.
“I don’t think we have any disagreement on the ‘what’ must be done, the only issues are working on how it is to be accomplished,” Wolff said.
IACHR President Margarette May Macaulay offered to facilitate further talks.
Relatives said access to NDIS could end decades of pain not knowing the fate of loved ones.
“I am here today to beg for your support. I have already given DNA,” said Irma Carrillo, a native of Mexico and mother of children aged 24 and 27 who went missing crossing the border in Arizona.
(Reporting by Andrew Hay; editing by Bill Tarrant and Leslie Adler)