Jason De León, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” Grant this year in recognition of his work illuminating the brutal impact of U.S. immigration policies along the U.S./Mexico and Southern Mexico/Guatemala borders. In addition to collecting artifacts migrants leave in the Sonoran desert as part of the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP), De León has pioneered the use of forensic science to document higher numbers of people dying during the crossings than official counts. Current caught up with him to talk about his research.
What were your goals when you founded UMP in 2009?
I wanted to see what archeology could tell me in conversation with interviews with migrants. I came to realize this was also a salvage mission; we’re trying to save items before they are destroyed.
In your book, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail, you describe how federal government policy “hides behind the viciousness of the Sonoran Desert.” Can you explain?
Prevention Through Deterrence (PTD) is structured to funnel people toward difficult natural environments where we know they’ll have to walk for many days, they’ll be exhausted, they may die. It is virtually impossible now to cross in urban areas, but you can go to Southern Arizona where there’s no fence and hundreds of square miles of open wilderness. We know that’s going to hurt people, it’s going to kill them. At the same time, it allows us, and the federal government, to say if the desert kills you, it’s not our fault. You chose to go into the desert and risk your life.
Your forensic research reveals how quickly bodies decompose in the Sonoran desert.
The Yuma County Medical Office says that when people die in the desert, bodies disappear. We don’t know how many people die. Many folks go missing. This is a way to say this is happening and here is the scientific data to support that many people are dying and disappearing and we’re not finding those bodies.
This is a longitudinal project, going on for almost 10 years. What other changes have you noticed?
The biggest change right now is that we’ve moved the US/Mexico border to Guatemala. We have lower numbers at the US border because Mexico is deporting thousands of Central Americans every year. Human rights abuses against Central Americans are happening at the hands of Mexican officials. When people complain, they’re told if you’re getting harassed, beaten up, arrested and deported, their rights violated by the Mexican government, that has nothing to do with the United States, even though the US Department of Homeland Security agents are providing supervisory roles and training. The American public doesn’t understand those things are happening in Central America and Mexico and we’re largely responsible.
Photographs are integral to your projects, particularly your new one concerning smugglers.
I hope the photos can tell other types of stories. Perhaps they can draw in people who don’t want to read ethnographies or a straight anthropological book. It’s a new kind of data set for me. Also, there is the idea about accessibility. We say “Oh, when I finish this book, I’ll translate it to Spanish so that people who are in it can read it.” Some of them are not literate, but photos in the book make it more accessible.
Can you comment on President Trump’s desire to extend the existing border wall?
He’s the only one calling for this wall. It’s a smokescreen for anxieties, a way to focus attention on border security. For me, it’s a symbol of xenophobia, racism, ignorance, and we know it doesn’t work. It’s a physical impossibility. The walls we currently have don’t stop people, they redirect them.
Anything else you’d like our community to understand about the work you do?
It’s important to keep in mind that what happens at the US/Mexican border impacts all of us in Michigan on a daily basis. We interact with people all day long whether we know it or not that have either gone through this process or been directly affected by having a family member go through this horrific thing. We live with the border daily.