In a Rare Moment of Agreement, Congress Sends Bipartisan Humanitarian Bill to the President

The Bill Was Passed on International Migrants Day and Will Help Prevent Deaths and Identify Human Remains in Remote Border Regions.

SOUTHERN BORDER — Tonight, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives sent a bipartisan, bicameral humanitarian bill, the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act, to the president for his signature. The bill will help save lives in remote areas of the border and identify human remains to bring closure to families whose loved ones perished in these areas. The overwhelming support in both chambers demonstrates that lawmakers can come together across political differences to act on their shared humanity. Now it’s up to the president to do his part and sign the bill.

Every year, hundreds of people fall into distress in remote areas of the border region and die as a result of dehydration or exposure, unable to access emergency services. While most are migrants, pushed into the deserts and mountains by border deterrence policies, border residents and law enforcement officials are also at risk of not being able to access help when they need it. Thousands of human remains have not been identified because of a lack of resources at the local level. The bipartisan bill passed by Congress would begin to address this issue. 

Specifically, the bill expands critical funding to process unidentified human remains and help resolve missing persons cases so that families can find closure. It also authorizes funding to deploy 170 new self-powering, 9-1-1 cellular relay rescue beacons in remote areas of the border so people can call for emergency assistance. It also includes important reporting mechanisms to track and prevent loss of life and inform future policy-making in the border region.

The bill originated in the Senate (S. 2174) and was introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Sen Tom Udall (D-NM). It passed the Senate by unanimous consent on November 16, 2020, and again with a technical revision on December 18, 2020. 

The House companion bill (H.R. 8772) was introduced by Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX) and Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), while Representatives Veronica Escobar (D-TX), Sylvia Garcia (D-TX), Filemon Vela (D-TX), and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) joined the bill as cosponsors. The House passed the bill on a voice vote on December 16, 2020.

Over 100 forensic scientists, subject matter experts, border-region humanitarian aid groups, human rights, immigrants rights and faith-based groups signed a letter expressing support for the bill. In an acrimonious year, passage of this bipartisan, bicameral bill is a rare and welcome event. Supporters of the bill now call on the president to sign it into law.

Vicki B. Gaubeca, director of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, issued the following statement:

“The Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act is an important first step to expanding public safety and upholding human rights in our region, and we thank all the lawmakers who worked hard to get it passed. We urge the president to sign it. Missing migrants are not simply statistics, they’re real people who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. The thousands of migrants who’ve died due to the decades-long militarization of the southern border have families and people who loved them. This bill will help bring them closure and prevent further loss of life.”

Tony Banegas, executive director, Colibrí Center for Human Rights, Tucson, Arizona, said:

"The Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act is a critical piece of legislation that will bring much needed resources to provide answers to hundreds of families whose loved one have died or have gone missing on the US-Mexico border. The Act's passage is a bright beam of light and a hopeful sign of a more kinder and gentler immigration policy. SInce the onset, the Colibri Center of Human Rights has been a trusted source for support and guidance to multiple families from across the world as we walk alongside them looking for answers; they give us the impetus to charge forward and we gladly accompany them on a journey where we almost know with certainty that somber news await us."

Vicente Rodriguez, a member of Aguilas del Desierto, an organization that does search and rescue in the border region, said: 

“This bill could not come on a better day, International Migrants Day. It will help reduce the number of deaths on the border. The border has seen thousands of deaths over the years. The Missing Person and Unidentified Remains Act will save hundreds of lives yearly, reducing the suffering and deaths of migrants and their families.” 

Eddie Canales, board member, South Texas Human Rights Center, Falfurrias, Texas, said:

“The passage of this legislation is historic in Congress. The act recognizes the humanitarian crisis of human beings dying on US-Mexico borderlands. The resources to address the forensic protocols and local costs associated with migrant deaths is critical.”

Kate Spradley, PhD, professor in Texas State University’s Department of Anthropology said:

“This bill is an acknowledgement of the devastating loss of life due to our current deterrence policy at the border. It is a step towards providing overwhelmed local jurisdictions with necessary resources to facilitate the identification of the missing and unidentified and to provide answers to families.” 

Andrea Guerrero, executive director of Alliance San Diego said: 

“We thank Congress for taking action to save lives and we urge the president to sign the bill. The 9-1-1 rescue beacons will enable people in remote parts of the border region from California to Texas to access emergency services when they are in distress. Unfortunately, many of the hundreds of people who die every year in these remote areas are found with a cell phone in their hand and no cell service. The new long-sought rescue beacons will help prevent deaths. In a year of discord, the unanimous support from Congress for this bill demonstrates that we can find common ground when we focus on our shared humanity. There is more work to do, but this is a big step forward.”

Adam Isacson, director for Defense Oversight, The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) said:

"This common-sense bill is the result of years of work from many people. Activists, law enforcement, officials, and experts worked together because they're exhausted with preventable deaths at the border. They're heartbroken from their interactions with loved ones unable to obtain closure. They're outraged by underfunded cities and counties having to pay the costs of a “migrant deterrence” policy that is not theirs. The Act's passage is a small but hopeful injection of empathy and humanity in U.S. border policy.”


The Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC) brings together organizations from San Diego, California to Brownsville, Texas, to ensure that border enforcement policies and practices are accountable and fair, respect human dignity and human rights, and prevent the loss of life in the region.



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Southern Border Communities Coalition is a program of Alliance San Diego.


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