Border Archaeology: Jason de Leon

Archeology Meets Ethnography: Learning More about Migrant Crossing

By Miranda Cain & Virginia Carico, WorldWideCitizens
Published on LatinoLA: December 16, 2011

Border Archaeology: Jason de Leon

Originally published at

This is the story of stuff. This is the story of people. This is the story of a movement that has a strong history in the American Southwest and Northern Mexico. This is the story of Jason de Le??n and his innovative Undocumented Migration Project.

Le??n is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. He directs the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP), which focuses on the study of archeology and ethnography of migrant crossings along the U.S.-Mexican border.

His background, like that of the border, is complex. He is a Mexican, Filipino, Irish mix. As a self-described "army brat" and "double immigrant," he grew up in a border town in Texas. This project and topic are personal to him: some of his family is undocumented.

In a lecture hall full of students, professors and community members on Oct. 17, 2011, Le??n presented "Better Hot than Caught: What the Archaeology of Undocumented Border Crossings Tells Us about the Immigration Debate" at Northern Arizona University.

"Culture is a messy, messy process," Le??n said.

What Le??n does is a unique mixture of ethnography, which essentially is observation, and archeology.

"Objects don't lie," said Le??n. "[It's] archaeology [as] an active site. [They] are archeological sites; [you] have to look beyond the garbage aspect."

His project develops conclusions from the various artifacts that migrants leave behind on the arduous journey from Mexico to Tucson, Ariz.

On average, each migrant leaves behind eight pounds of trash. To Le??n, this trash is not simply trash. This trash tells a story of each individual person, of each group traveling together. It also reveals a lot about human behavior.

He details the stigma of migrants in border towns like Nogales. Despite this, there are shelters there for recently deported migrants--who either made it to their destination or got caught somewhere along the way in the vast desert.

Le??n discussed what he calls the Border Crossing Industry.

"Altar is the smuggling hub in Sonora. [People] specialize in selling things for migrants to cross [with, such as] backpacks, water and international products," Le??n said.

He is able to track his work and estimate the number of people who have been in the area. He does this by counting backpacks, shoes or other items he finds. He uses these things to guess the age and gender of the migrants.

One item he found that he thought was interesting is a smuggler's journal, which held Western Union account numbers--for smuggling payments--and "chicken counts," the number of people be smuggled.

He explained his project as "history in the making" and summed up why people embark on this dangerous mission with these words from a migrant: "I can either die in the desert or I can watch my children die in Southern Chiapas."

Q & A:

Question: What is the end goal of your border project?

Answer: The end goal, the one that I can at least sort of visualize at this point, is probably one more season, maybe two more seasons of field research and this will culminate in a book. Basically, I would argue that the angle is really trying to use multiple ethnographical techniques to understand a social process that's not very--using anthropology to understand a social process that's clandestine.

There's something that's so politically charged, everyone has a very strong opinion about it, but unfortunately most people have no idea what the process is actually like, you know what's involved, who the players are, the historical development of this whole process. My goal is really to just demystify the border crossing phenomenon.

Question: When did you start the project?

Answer: The project started in 2008.

Question: What sort of experiences have you had with migrants?

Answer: It runs the gamut from, you know, you sort of see, a diverse group of people. Most people who are migrating are doing it because they are poor and are looking for economic opportunities in the states. You always have people who are migrating or attempting to undertake [the] border crossings because they don't have [a way] in [to] the United States without papers and they are now attempting to return to their home and to their family. You run into people who are basically coming to this country for economic reasons. You run into people who are basically from this country but don't have the legal paperwork to demonstrate that and sort of don't have any place to go but to return. You can just imagine it's a truly wide range of people in terms of age, in terms of ethnicity and nationality, so we've got [the[ Mexicans, ingenious Mexican-nationals, you've got your people coming from Central America as well. You end up seeing a wide range of experiences in different forms, most of it is very miserable.

For me, in terms of how I've been involved with it, it's basically trying to get know a very, very diverse group of people and trying to speak to their different experiences. So whether, you know, what is it like to be a gay man and go through a border crossing experience and experience significant amounts of discrimination both in Mexico and during the crossing process. The experiences that occur are unique to the individual.

Question: What do you think about the stigma surrounding undocumented migrants, in terms of how people in the United States regard undocumented migrants?

Answer: The stigma, at least the current stigma right and we're basically paying much more attention to migrants than we have in previous years because of our economy is so bad, because it's an election year and this is a process that has been going on for decades. I mean, in terms of the level of Latino migration it peaks and it drops depending on varying economic time. But in terms of the negative stigma surrounding migrants right now, so much of that is something that has just been fostered more.

That sort of anti-immigrant sentiment is on rise probably because of politicians who are playing up on the [controversy] of it, they're sort of playing undocumented migrants for every single thing that has gone wrong in this country at this moment in time and I think that the stigma that we attach to migrants that changes depending on our political times, our economic times. Migrants themselves think that there are relevant--well their experiences are difficult because they don't have a lot of rights.

They are pretty much living sort of very hidden life, where they are not able to speak out on a lot of experiences that they have; so I think for them in many senses [‘«™] right now they are starting to feel much more of this anti-immigrant stigma than in previous years. The stigma itself is very fluid: when things are great, when the economy is going really well, we forget that the people who pick our fruit and landscape our yard and do everything else are undocumented. And it's only right now that the police officers are following up on this and that people are trying to find a scapegoat, but we weren't having these same conversations five years ago.

Question: What do you think about the wall that has been put up along most of the border?

Answer: the wall has been shown to be a very, very ineffective and expensive strategy that is disruptive to the environment, to a lot of the wildlife and basically it doesn't work. The joke has only been: show me a ten foot wall and I'll show you 11 foot ladder. The wall itself is not going to deter migration. People are always going to have strategies and techniques and technology to get beyond the surveillance and the enforcement techniques.

The wall looks good for politicians because they can say: 'hey look, I'm doing something about the border issues by putting this wall up.' But it really hasn't done anything other than cost a lot of money. The current sort of thinking and the way most people are portraying border enforcement right now is saying, 'Look, we've got it under control. We've got all these agents out on the ground. We've really slowed down immigration, we're deterring people.'

Basically, that's been happening for two reasons: (1) our economy is so bad that we don't have the jobs; there's not as much pull because the job market is so bad in the U.S. and (2) this growing anti-immigrant sentiment, I think, is discouraging people from coming. I think it's primarily an economic issue. The wall could be 20-feet high but the more jobs [that are] here and people who are willing to employ undocumented migrants, then people are still going to be coming regardless.

Question: What do you think about the American immigration policy and the immigration process in general?

Answer: One of the biggest issues that I think that people don't understand is that it's actually really difficult to get legal paperwork to come to this country. It requires having enough money in the bank. It requires owning property and we don't actually don't give a lot of work visas to Latin American countries. Our immigration policy is really flawed in that we rely so heavily on a cheap, non-American labor force, but we don't want to give them the legal ability to come here and work. We don't want to give them [the chance] to work here legally.

It's much easier for people to exploit a labor force if they are undocumented because then employers aren't held accountable for how they are treating [those] workers. I think that it's going to take some serious comprehensive immigration reform to fix this problem. Right now the policies and what we are doing on the ground just don't match up very well. I think that what we are going to find is that [if]we keep demonizing undocumented migrants, [if] we keep pushing them out of these low-paying, undesirable labor markets [then] we're either going to have to start paying 15 dollars for an apple or we're going to have find people to fill these job; I don't think that the American public, I don't think that most Americans are willing or able to undertake the work that most of the undocumented migrants are more than willing to accept--much lower pay, much worse working conditions.

Our policy right now, it just doesn't work. If we keep going after migrants and pushing them out of the job market that it's going to force us to resolve some of these major issues. What often time happens is that we spend a lot of time talking about undocumented migrants, we sort of demonize them for a little bit, things get better and we forget about the "problem." Immigration reform is something that we've been talking about since the late '90s and it really just hasn't happened.

Question: Do you think that the border is a dangerous place?

Answer: I think there is a bit of stigmatism that the border is a very a dangerous place. I think a lot of really awful things happen along the border. But there's a difference between sort of things that happen that are deadly versus perceptions of danger. If you ask people who live in Southern Arizona, you know Arivaca, Nogales; it's basically a police state. It is occupied by border patrol, almost like a standing army. The border patrol occupying the Tohono O'odham Nation; there's a full force down there Crime has been shown to be going down over the last ten years along the border. [‘«™] . There's a perception that border is dangerous, but its quiet overblown.

Not to say that it's not dangerous for border patrol agents who have to encounter [‘«™] narco trafficking. Those are the guys who are sort of experiencing the most dangerous things; but in terms of overall border violence, it's gone down over the past ten years and that's probably the result of having so many border patrol agents on the ground. There is a dangerous element because of the drug smuggling, but there are also hundreds of people dying in Southern Arizona a year, exposure to the elements, being shot at by camouflage militia men members.

We've got migrants that are being assaulted and killed by border bandits and that form of danger is something that the American public doesn't want to talk about. I mean it's hard for us to, I think, I think we can sympathize with the difficulties that law enforcement have and its terrible when a border patrol agent losses their life and that's something that really big that's happening in Southern Arizona. At the same time, we also have hundreds of other people who are dying a year that we never really hear anything about. There are, depending on your slant, you know what you would consider dangerous versus what you consider norm, I think there's a lot of complex social and political things going on within that discussion. It's almost like if you, I think that most people down there would recognize that it can be dangerous: it's dangerous for law enforcement, it's dangerous for migrants. But we attempt to downplay the migrant part and I think what a lot of people are able to justify the sort of, mentally that the component of people if its someone who is illegal or engaging in an illegal act that we should not be considered about the humanitarian crisis that has been happening in Southern Arizona for over a decade.

[People] make the comment about migrant death: 'Well, oh well, migrants are dying but they're illegal and illegal is illegal and who cares and I think that's what really becomes very problematic with [understanding] the what particular dangers are in Southern Arizona. It really is this selective discussion about what is dangerous and what we continue to ignore, which I think is the biggest problem with this immigration issue. We're having a hard time, many people in this country sympathizing with something that really is on a very basic level a humanitarian issue.

Question: Are you hoping that the book you're planning for this project will help change that point of view?

Answer: My hope for the book is not to change anyone's point of view but more to just give the information because I think the biggest problem about border issues is that people have very strong opinions often times and very little information. My goal is to say: 'Look, I don't care how you think about this stuff or how you're going to think about this stuff', I just want to try and education people and say, 'This is what it actually looks like on the ground, these are thing that happen, these are the reasons underlying why border crossing in Southern Arizona is the way that it is and these are the human faces of the people who go through this stuff.'

Whether or not that's going to change anyone's opinion, who knows if it will, but goal is really just to say: 'Here's the information.' And there's so much out there that is really lacking in detail and that's the problem. I think that if [it] will at least give people a more new understanding of all the complex social, political and economic things that are going on along the border then they can choose to take this information and do what they will with it.

Questions: What do you think will be happening with the border in the next ten or twenty years.

Answer: I think, in some respects I'm really hopeful that things will change and that we will have some comprehensive immigration reform and we can stop this cat and mouse game that we've been playing for several decades. My sense is that, that's a really wishful thinking. I do hope that we don't continue to pour money into this big money pit that's become the border, that's really, really ineffective.

And if you ask border patrol agents, they'll tell you that we're wasting a lot of money on labor hours, technology to catch migrants, when I think that most border patrol agents would agree that their primary goal is to keep out drug smugglers and the much more violent criminal element. I'm hoping something will happen that we can allow law enforcement to do the job that, I think; they would prefer to be doing.

It seems like right now that the people who are most vocal about the types of enforcement we should be doing along the border are those who just have no clue, so people like Herman Cain and Michelle Backman, who want to build a fence around the entire border and want to electrify it. Unfortunately, the American public thinks that a lot of times those are the best strategies and they don't really have an understanding of the dynamics of the stuff. I'm hoping that we get some sensible people to look at this issue of border security and find ways to both keep this country secure and at the same time allow for this labor force that we rely so heavily on to do the job that we are requiring them to do.

Part of my nightmare is that it's going to turn into this very bizarre Orwellian place, where we're going to put up this giant wall, and you see a lot of the jokes and fiction that people have written about the direction that this country is going in, in terms of border security is starting to play out, unfortunately [‘«™] If they [people] just saw what it was like on the border and the things that our government was doing that would open a lot people's eyes up to this stuff. And they could prevent us from throwing millions of dollars into this problem that we're not going to solve that way.

Question: Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Answer: People's sort of misconceptions about what this project [his border anthropology] about and I've been accused of trying to glamorize border crossing or trying to create sympathy for people and what I do think that the problems with those perspectives is that number one there's no glamorizing the border crossing process at all and the sympathy factor, you know, I don't really like this narrative of people feel bad about this stuff, I mean the realities, the physical and emotional realities of what people go through are very, very real.

And I think that we as American citizens should want to know about that; we should want to know what is happening along the Southern Arizona border and I think that the people that have a gut reaction to research of this nature are those who really don't want to know--its fear that 'oh, once I know that the food that I eat or the labor that I rely on comes through this very difficult desert, hundreds of people die a year, hundreds of thousands go through various forms of suffering a year.

I think that [once people understand this] then we sort of development this issue of accountability and many people would rather just not know about that [sort of thing]. I think that's unfortunate because there're the ones who tend to be the most vocal about all of this stuff. What I would I say at the end of the day is that it's all very difficult to understand. There's a lot of complexities there and it's very, very gray. I don't have any answer, I have no, I don't know how to fix this problem, but the one thing that I think I can do is provide people with more detailed information about what this problem actually looks like.

About Miranda Cain & Virginia Carico, WorldWideCitizens:
Northern Arizona University Journalism students.
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