In Hispanic culture the hummingbird has historically symbolized a messenger from the otherworld, who brings a message from the dead to the living. So when Robin Reineke decided to found a non-profit organization that helps bring closure to the family and friends of missing immigrants, Colibri (‘hummingbird’ in Spanish) was chosen.
Founded in 2006 in Tucson, Arizona, within the County Coroner’s office, The Colibri Center for Human Rights assists families mostly in South and Central America discover the whereabouts of missing loved ones. Colibri takes information from families who’ve contacted them about their loved one, and then works to connect the missing person with forensic evidence collected from searches in the desert.
The Colibri database has detailed information on over 2,000 active missing person cases, including everything from dental records and photographs of scars and tattoos to articles of clothing and jewelry. It also has information on 2,500 bodies (900 of which remain unidentified). Colibri will also conduct searches in the desert themselves, and is committed to working with anyone, regardless of nationality or citizenship status.
For United States citizens, the search for a missing person is relatively easy. But for those living outside the U.S., searches across international borders is far more complicated. Some families are foreign nationals living in Central America or Mexico, and are turned away by government officials who don’t have the time or inclination to search for undocumented immigrants. Still others are themselves undocumented workers living in the United States, and are afraid to file missing persons reports with authorities.
The actual number of annual migrant deaths is nearly impossible to verify because of the number of people who remain missing. What is known is that between 1998 and 2013, over 6,000 men, women, and children perished somewhere in the unforgiving desert just north of the Mexican-American border alone. And in 2014, over 300 deaths were officially reported. Harsh weather conditions are often the cause, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports that many also fall prey to violence—to sexual assault, human trafficking, and forced labor.
Reineke shares, “I can’t tell you how many families have said that the pain of not knowing is far worse than knowing and being able to begin to grieve and move on.”
Colibri offers a service to families of missing migrants, but it serves a larger purpose as well. It puts a human face on the immigration issue, challenging citizens to see children of God and not just policies.
Colibri collects pieces of the shattered hopes and dreams of those who sought a better life at all costs and against all odds in the Land of Opportunity. Here are stories that cry out to be heard, still. Because every life is precious.
Listen to the hummingbirds.
I’m Dr. Ross Porter.