1/25/2019 Peter Durantine

American Policy Reflected in the Lives and Deaths of Migrants

Jason De León, scholar and author of the award-winning book, “The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail,” opened his talk in Franklin & Marshall College’s Mayser Gym with a pointed reminder about America’s current immigration debate.

“I did not think in 2019 I would be talking about border walls,” the University of Michigan professor of anthropology said. “This for me is a smoke screen. This is not what we should be thinking about, we should be thinking about the humanitarian crisis as it’s currently underway.”

As director of the Undocumented Migration Project, which documents violence against people attempting unauthorized passage across the Mexican-U.S. border, De León spoke at the Jan. 24 Common Hour, a community conversation every Thursday classes are in session.

  • De León says the U.S. government relies on the mountains, extreme temperatures, and nature’s other obstacles along the Mexican-U.S. border to deter people from unauthorized entry.. Thousands have perished over the years from this policy. De León says the U.S. government relies on the mountains, extreme temperatures, and nature’s other obstacles along the Mexican-U.S. border to deter people from unauthorized entry.. Thousands have perished over the years from this policy. Image Credit: Deb Grove

De León said that since the mid-1990s the U.S. government has relied on a border enforcement strategy known as “Prevention Through Deterrence,” a policy in which a security infrastructure funnels undocumented migrants toward remote and rugged terrain in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. 

The government relies on the mountains, extreme temperatures, and nature’s other obstacles to deter people from unauthorized entry, he said. Thousands have perished over the years trying to make this desperate journey, and he told stories of finding bodies of migrants along this hostile environment during his research.

“Flies. I mostly remember the goddamn flies,” De León said, reading from the opening of his book that describe the flies covering the face of a dead migrant laying under the desert sun. “After spending just a few weeks at the U.S.-Mexico border, hanging out with the desperate people looking to breach America’s immigration defenses, I quickly learned that death, violence and suffering are par for the course.”

Since 2009, De León has documented the federal deterrence policy’s violent effects through the Undocumented Migration Project, a long-term anthropological study of clandestine migration that combines ethnography, photography, archaeology and forensic science.

To successfully cross the border, migrants have to travel as many as 70 miles or more through the desert, wearing inadequate footwear, and with few belongings and clothes. They never carry enough food and water. Death can come easily from the unforgiving terrain, from attacks by wild animals, or from smugglers who rob, sexually assault and kill them.

“People who die in the desert are quickly consumed by birds,” the anthropologist said.

De León, with an animal handler, killed several pigs and dressed them in the type of clothing found on migrants. They left the animals in the desert to photograph and research what happens to the corpses. He said the way bodies decompose in this environment is a form of hidden political violence that has deep ideological roots. 

In archaeology this work is called taphonomy, the study of the transformation of human remains before, during and after burial. For De León, who at times came across just the scattered bones of migrants in the desert, this is most important to his research. Many, perhaps most, migrants who died trying to cross the border are unknown, he said.

“I’ve been trying to understand what these deaths mean and what they looked like,” De León said. “Taphonomy is a cultural process, a social process. People have pointed out that if you look at how we treat the dead in all kinds of different contexts … how we treat the dead tells us a whole hell of a lot about the dead and how we view the dead and the beliefs of the living about that dead person.” 

De León, who later this year moves to the University of California, Los Angeles as professor of anthropology and chicana/o studies, is co-curator with Lucy Cahill and photographer Michael Wells of “Hostile Terrain,” an exhibit now in the Phillips Museum of Art that depicts and illustrates his research. 

  • The photography of Michael Wells, De León's research partner, depicts the migrants and the unforgiving conditions they face in this Phillips Museum's exhibit,  “Hostile Terrain.” The photography of Michael Wells, De León's research partner, depicts the migrants and the unforgiving conditions they face in this Phillips Museum's exhibit, “Hostile Terrain.” Image Credit: Deb Grove
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