Jason DeLeón, director of the Undocumented Migration Project at the Tucson-Mexico border. (Photo/Michael Wells/mwellsphoto.com)

An anthropologist records the lives behind the border crossings

Over 400,000 people were deported last year alone — setting a record high of deportations in the United States. Many might not stop to think about these people’s lives, or the lives behind the 5,600 dead bodies which have been recovered along the border since 1998. Jason De León not only thinks about them, he studies their remains and preserves them.

Based far away from the Tucson-Mexico border, at the University of Michigan, the anthropology professor is also the director of the Undocumented Migration Project. In this project De León began in 2009, he studies the undocumented migration between Mexico and the U.S. using ethnography, archaeology, and forensic science, in order to capture the human side of immigration.

“I met a guy named Victor in 2001, we were in our early 20’s — we became very close, and he told me about how he crossed the border and got kidnapped by smugglers and was held in one room in awful conditions. Then he was arrested by border patrol and sent back to Mexico,” says DeLeón. “I realized I really didn’t know much about the actual process itself.”

After writing a dissertation on stone tools in Veracruz, Mexico in 2008, his mind started gravitating more and more toward the topic of immigration.

“I met many Victors after that with similar stories — people that wanted to cross the border,” says De León, who is half Mexican, half Filipino and originally from South Texas. “I realized we knew so little because few scientists have studied it…[and that] I could understand this hidden social process by talking to migrants and filling in blanks by analyzing the stuff people leave behind.

De León’s anthropological and archaeological background came in handy in capturing these people’s stories. He started visiting the Tucson-Mexico border three to four times a year, and still does.

“In 2009 this was the heaviest corridor — over 50 percent of apprehensions were taking place there,” says De León, who also brings 20 to 25 students there every summer to teach them field research. “Over the last five years, things have evolved. Before you saw a wide range of stuff — a nice set of clothes, for example — you don’t really see that anymore.”

He explains that now that migrants are more aware of the dangers of crossing the border, it’s mostly the essentials — food, water and smaller personal items – which are found.

“It’s become pretty standard to bring extra socks, shoes, and Ibuprofen,” says DeLeón. “Some people cross with barely two nickels.”

Over the past four years, he says he’s housed 11,500 found items at the University of Michigan, and have looked at 20 to 30,000 objects in the field.

“We store it like any archeological collection,” says DeLeón. “We’re trying to find a home for it — a museum who will take the stuff.”

De León says it’s important to document these objects in order to paint a more nuanced picture of what’s really going on, and also to preserve this history of our country. He’s also working on a book on the topic which is expected to be complete in December of 2014.

“We want to show people these are the impacts of federal policies,” says DeLeón of the nearly 70 people who have worked on this project with him since 2009. “Border patrol is constantly talking about the ‘war on terror,’ and one of the things we can say as researchers is that none of that is going on…The reality we observe is that the majority of people are coming across for economic reasons.”

As far as the immigration reform bill under debate right now, he thinks putting 20,000 more troops on the border is dangerous.

“At least 15 to 18 people have been killed or badly hurt by border patrol in the last two to three years,” says DeLeón. “I think putting 20,000 more agents are going to pad some people’s pockets, but it’s not going to solve the issue…We can spend billions of dollars on the border, but we can’t help the campesinos earn a minimum wage?”

When people are desperate to find jobs, he says nothing will deter them.

“The majority are coming for economic reasons or trying to return to the only lives they’ve ever known,” he says.

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