Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Viewing Illegal Immigration Through Desert Debris

In the litter scattered across the desert floor, professor Jason De León finds truths about the miserable business of illegal immigration.

We don’t see or hear the border patrol agents until they’re almost on top of us. There are two of them, both white; one older and wiry, the other young and beefy. They are dressed in olive drab uniforms. The wiry one gives our little group of four the once-over. “We thought we might get some action today,” he says, “but you guys look all right.” He sounds just a touch disappointed.

“What are you all up to?” the beefy one asks.

“We’re out for a hike,” says Jason De León.

De León, 34, is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan and the founder of an undertaking called the Undocumented Migrant Project. Since 2008, he has been studying illegal migration from Mexico into southern Arizona. He doesn’t volunteer that information, though. It’s more trouble than it’s worth.

“Seen anyone out here?” the wiry one asks.

“Not yet,” says Bob Kee. Kee is a volunteer in the Tucson Samaritans, a group whose members hike the most heavily used stretches of desert in search of migrants who might need food, water, or urgent medical attention. The Samaritans focus on preventing deaths and try to avoid either assisting or impeding the migrants on their trek. Covering Kee’s backpack is a large red T-shirt emblazoned with a white cross and the word “Samaritanos.” It is not subtle.

“You guys OK for water and food?” the wiry one asks.

“We have enough,” Kee says. “How about you? Do you guys need any water or anything?”

“We’re fine,” the wiry one answers. A few beats pass in silence. “Well, we’d best be gettin’ on,” he finally says. “You folks have a nice hike.”

As the two agents start to leave, the beefy one turns back. “If you find anything that might interest us, you be sure to tell us,” he says.

We murmur that we will. The agent grins at us. He knows that we won’t.


For de león, the subject of migration across the southern border is both broadly American and narrowly personal. He is the grandson of an illegal immigrant, and he grew up in the border states of Texas and California. His parents were in the U.S. Army (his father was a staff sergeant, his mother a warrant officer), and being an army brat meant he moved a lot. “It creates a disposition toward understanding cultural differences,” he says.

In 1995, De León started his undergraduate education at UCLA and immersed himself in anthropology and archaeology. “I’d always been interested in archaeology,” he recalls, “even before I knew what it was.” After graduating in 2001 with a major in anthropology, he moved across the country, enrolling at Pennsylvania State University for his graduate education. He earned his doctorate in 2008, having completed a dissertation titled “The Lithic Industries of San Lorenzo-Tenochtitlán: An Economic and Technological Study of Olmec Obsidian.” It concerned the trade of obsidian blades (that is, blades made from volcanic glass). As part of his research, he had to pick through thousands of tiny rocks. “It was sometimes a struggle to stay excited,” he says.

After De León earned his Ph.D., he decided to take a break from archaeology and accepted an offer to be a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Washington in Seattle. The job gave him the leeway to be an academic without having to bore into his immediate specialty. He embraced it, and taught, among other things, a popular course on the anthropology of rock ’n’ roll. Since he had been the singer and songwriter for a punk band called Youth in Asia in the 1990s (and currently sings in an alt-country band called The Wilcox Hotel), the work tapped into something appealing and immediate.

Yet archaeology stayed with him. In 2007, while a graduate student, he had helped to excavate an Olmec site in Mexico. Many of the people working on the project had been migrants to the U.S., and he got to hear their stories. “I started to see that there was a lot more going on with migration than people knew,” he says.

Then, some archaeologists who were working in southern Arizona mentioned to De León that they frequently had to dig through piles of what they saw as trash that migrants had left behind. “They said that I should do an archaeological study on that stuff,” he says. “They were probably joking.”

But he took their advice seriously and headed to the Coronado National Forest. He found sites littered with a few plastic water bottles under bushes or cactuses, and then others with hundreds of discarded shoes, clothes, backpacks. What was trash to others was, to him, the archaeology of undocumented migration — the visible remnants of a largely invisible phenomenon.

So he launched the Undocumented Migrant Project in 2009. Combining ethnographic research (in the form of collecting oral histories) and archeological research (combing through modern-day sites), it would be a long-term study of people and their cultures, through their artifacts. “I needed to find a way to get back to archaeology that I found personally meaningful,” De León says. “This was also a way for it to be relevant to contemporary issues.”

• •  • • • • • • • • • • • • •

We are standing in the coronado national forest, about 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. Off to the northwest, Baboquivari Peak rises out of a distant mountain range. “Migrants make sure to keep it on their left as they walk,” De León says. “If it’s on the left, they know they’re going north.”

Each summer, De León travels to this part of Arizona to do field work. Today, we are just four, but De León often brings a larger group. In 2010, he became an assistant professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and he often has students with him. They stay in Arivaca, a small town about 11 miles north of the border. From there, they hike out to map sites and collect artifacts — a process that frequently includes hauling out pounds of smelly debris in garbage bags. De León catalogs the items, trying to get a sense of the gender and age of the person carrying this camouflage backpack, or who wore through the sole of that knock-off Nike Air Jordan.

The artifacts are part of an evolving story. In the past, most migrants came to the United States through border cities, not through the wilderness. At the point of entry between San Diego and Tijuana, migrants often made what local Border Patrol agents called “banzai runs” — frantic dashes across the border, sometimes in groups as large as 50, into oncoming traffic on Interstate 5. But the number of agents has more than doubled since 2004, from 10,000 to 21,370, of which 18,000 are deployed along the U.S.-Mexico border. So, illegal attempts to cross the border are happening in increasingly remote areas.

Today, almost half of all migrants try to cross in the Sonoran Desert. It’s prodigiously dry (less than 2 inches of rain annually in parts) and prodigiously hot (120 degrees Fahrenheit is not uncommon). Since 2001, more than 2,100 migrants have died here; last year was one of the worst on record, with 249 deaths. This, says De León, is one of the details lost in the recent spate of stories on the decline of illegal migration: fewer people may be crossing, but proportionally more of those who do cross are dying.

As we make our way through the desert, we come across countless empty packets of ephedrine pills and cans of energy drinks along with the water bottles. These are provided by coyotes (smugglers of migrants) in order to hurry people across the terrain. The water bottles are black, because migrants think that black will make the containers harder to detect. “There’s a real lack of understanding of the true capacity and practices of the Border Patrol,” De León says. “Agents use ground sensors now, aerial drones, thermal imaging — and the migrants still paint their bottles black.”

When it comes to U.S. efforts to control the border, numbers don’t always mean what they appear to mean, and rumors and misconceptions are rife. “Archaeology has been really helpful in demystifying the process,” he says. The sites tell him a lot about how the migrants travel, providing details that interviews do not. Similarly, the interviews he conducts often clear up mysteries that emerge when De León is cataloging a site. The ethnography and archeology, he says, “feed back into each other very well.” For example, De León knows through interviews why the water bottles are painted black. He also knows that six factories in Mexico make water bottles that are specially designed for desert crossings — gallon jugs the size and shape of Clorox bottles. And several of those companies have started to sell their bottles made from black plastic. This is a change that has occurred within the past two years. “The objects themselves say a lot about the migration process,” De León says. One company even puts an outline of Baboquivari Peak on its label. As De León points out, wryly, it’s hard to get more obvious than that.

The factory-blackened bottles, camouflage clothes, and backpacks — all likely found in the well-stocked stalls in the Mexican border towns of Nogales and Altar — attest to an unmistakable professionalization in the border-jumping business. For De León, to see these products as discarded artifacts reminds him of the humanity beneath the politics.“I want to have a good data set,” he says. “But I also want to understand the real costs that migrants have to pay, so that their lives are less anonymous.”

We are about 20 yards above the trail, where there is a small, makeshift shrine: two branches tied together with rope to make a cross, leaning among a small pile of stones. Kee tells De León that he re-wrapped the cross with duct tape. The rope was fraying. “Technically,” De León tells me later, “when he did that, he changed an archaeological site.” He shrugs. “It happens.” Of course, by entering it into the record as is, one could add that instead of just being a migrant’s lonely gesture, it became evidence that an American was moved by his encounter, sufficiently so that he tried to preserve it.

“As archaeologists, we can sometimes be a little esoteric, or not very good at connecting our research to broader issues that everyday people can understand,” De León says. He is thrashing through a tangle of spindly ocotillo plants, also known as the devil’s coach whip. Each is more than 10 feet tall and leafy from recent rains. Two months ago, Kee found several human bones here, scattered about the hillside. He has been back several times, each time finding a few more bones. He collects them and takes them to a coroner, on the off chance that one day they might be identified. The four of us pick through the rocks and vegetation, gathering whatever bone chips and fragments lie next to the trail. De León finds a bicuspid. I find a 4-inch section of rib. It is a morbid search.

Such is the challenge of archaeology of the unfolding present. If this were purely a study site, De León would have laid a grid over the hillside. He would have had us go over the site on our hands and knees, square by square. Each bone we found would have been meticulously cataloged, its position noted with GPS. But we are in a more fluid space — not quite archaeological, not quite crime scene, not quite garbage dump, not quite wilderness. Kee brings out a small Ziploc, so that our bits and pieces can be added to the already gathered remains. We drop them in. They fill roughly half the bag.

Wagner, Eric. 2011. "Viewing Illegal Immigration Through Desert Debris". Miller-McCune. Posted: November 1, 2011. Available online:

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