The Undocumented Migration Project will be featured in a day long session at the 2015 Society for Historical Archaeology meetings in Seattle on Friday January 9th, 2015.



SHA 2015 Conference on Historical and Underwater Archaeology


SYM-18: Crossing Borders and Erasing Boundaries: An Overview of the First Five Years of the Undocumented Migration Project

Time: Friday, 09/Jan/2015: 10:30am – 4:30pm
Session Chair: Jason De León, University of Michigan;
Session Chair: Cameron Gokee, Appalachian State University;
Session Chair: Haeden E. Stewart, University of Chicago;
Discussant: Robin Reineke, Colibrí Center for Human Rights;
Discussant: Anthony P. Graesch, Connecticut College;
Location: Ravenna C
50 seat theatre
Session Abstract
Each year hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants attempt to enter the U.S. by walking for several days across the harsh Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona. In addition, hundreds of people die annually while en route. The technological, spatial, and social strategies migrants use to survive the desert and avoid apprehension have led to the formation of a controversial contemporary archaeological record that includes consumables, clothing, personal effects, and dead bodies. Between 2009 and 2014, the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP) deployed a combination of ethnographic, archaeological, and forensic approaches to better understand what this record reveals about the poorly understood social process of clandestine migration between Sonora, Mexico and Arizona. Each paper in this session considers a specific set of material and/or spatial data that, when set in productive tension with ethnographic perspectives, helps to illuminate the experiences of migrants and other political actors in the borderlands of southern Arizona.
On Dangerous Ground: Documenting the Undocumented Migration Project 2009-2014Jason De León1,21University of Michigan; 2Institute for Field Research

Started in 2009, the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP) developed out of an attempt to couple archaeological data on what border crossers left in the Arizona desert with ethnographic data collected at migrant shelters in Northern Mexico. The initial goal was to understand the informal economy that structured human smuggling and the various technologies of survival and subterfuge that people employed while crossing the Sonoran Desert. Since 2009, the project’s scope has significantly expanded to focus on a wide range of topics including the various forms of violence experienced in the desert, the role of non-humans in border enforcement, and what the types of deaths migrants experience can tell us about notions of citizenship and sovereignty. In this paper I briefly trace the intellectual history of the UMP, discuss its relationship and contribution to the fields of ethnography, forensic science, and archaeology of the contemporary, and discuss the project’s future directions.

“It Doesn’t Matter if You’re a Citizen”: Emic Perspectives on Border Patrol and Security from a Southern Arizona Border Town

Murphy A Van Sparrentak1, Chloe Bergsma-Safar2

1University of Michigan, United States of America; 2Undocumented Migration Project

Arivaca, Arizona is one of many small unincorporated communities along the US/Mexican border that have recently been thrust into the media spotlight in the wake of discussions of immigration reform. The dominant media narrative coming out of these towns is typically characterized by anti-immigrant sentiment and calls for more Border Patrol presence. Drawing on ethnographic work in Arivaca and archaeological work focused on Border Patrol activities, I offer a counter narrative to the one portrayed by the media and argue that race, class and personal experiences with migrants and drug smuggling make it difficult to reduce local public opinion to one storyline. I also argue that Arivaca is an exceptional political space where the landscape has become heavily militarized and where local citizens routinely have their civil rights violated by federal law enforcement.

Humanitarian Sites: A Contemporary Archaeological and Ethnographic Study of Clandestine Culture Contact among Undocumented Migrants, Humanitarian Aid Groups, and the U.S. Border Patrol

Justine A. Drummond1, Jason P. De León2

1University of Victoria, Canada; 2University of Michigan

For over a decade, Arizona humanitarian groups such as Samaritans and No More Deaths have attempted to help undocumented migrants by leaving water bottles along the many trails in the Sonoran Desert leading from Mexico into the United States. These humanitarian sites have become a source of public controversy, viewed as acts of littering or attempts to aid illegal immigration. During the 2012 and 2013 field seasons of the Undocumented Migration Project, we conducted an archaeological analysis of humanitarian sites to better understand site distribution practices, modification and usage, and associations with other artifacts and site types. Participant observation was conducted during multiple hikes with Samaritans volunteers. In this paper we argue that humanitarian sites illustrate migrant strategies of survival, provide insight into how some humanitarians perceive migrants, and reveal evidence of underlying (often hidden) hostilities existing between Border Patrol and both migrants and those who attempt to help them.

An Investigation Of Surface Assemblages Related To Contemporary Immigration In Southern Arizona

Mario A Castillo

University of California-Berkeley, United States of America

For the last twenty years an archaeological record of immigration has taken shape in Arizona’s wilderness. This material record results from millions of undocumented men, women and children who have entered the U.S. without authorization by walking across the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona. Along the way these people eat, rest, and deposit a variety of objects (e.g., water bottles, clothes, personal effects) at ad-hoc resting areas known as migrant sites. These surface assemblages are affected by formation processes which include deposition of materials by migrants, removal of items by non-migrants and physical disturbance by wildlife and desert environment. In this paper, I present a field method for investigating formation processes of migrant site assemblages using contemporary survey instruments, digital photography and Geographic Information Systems. The results indicate that physical (and ephemeral) process of contemporary immigration in Arizona are actively erased, appropriated, and re-imagined by human and non-human actors.

Landscapes of the Borderlands: Efficacy and Ethics of Applying Archaeological Spatial Analysis to Undocumented Migration in the Arizona Desert.

Haeden E. Stewart1, Ian Ostericher2

1University of Chicago; 2University College Dublin

Utilizing an archaeological landscape approach to analyze undocumented migration has significantly improved our understanding of this highly politicized and poorly understood social process. Using spatial methods in conjunction with interviews with migrants, this paper examines the complex geopolitical landscape that is shaped, traversed, and experienced by federal law enforcement, humanitarian workers and undocumented border crossers. While the employment of archaeological spatial methods aids in our understanding of the complexities of border crossing, the act of studying and publishing high-accuracy spatial information about undocumented migration requires a great deal of sensitivity. We highlight what we have learned from five years of survey in the Arizona desert, outline some of the ethical dilemmas that have impacted how we analyze and publish spatial data, and posit that the current border enforcement system is largely a political smokescreen that has taken the lives of thousands of border crossers since the late 1990s.

“Cherry-Picking” the Material Record of Border Crossings: Artifact Selection and Narrative Construction Among Non-Migrants

Leah B Mlyn1, Jason De Leon2

1New York University; 2University of Michigan

Since 2000, over 4 million people have been apprehended trying to cross without authorization into the U.S. from Mexico via the Arizona desert. During this process millions of pounds of artifacts associated with migration have been left behind. This includes clothes, consumables, and personal effects. Subsequently, humanitarian groups, artists, local U.S. citizens, museum curators, and anthropologists have collected and used these artifacts in a multitude of ways. In this paper we draw on interviews and participant observation data collected with the aforementioned groups to explore how value judgments, emotion, class, ethnicity, gender, and political ideology impact what is collected and how artifacts are interpreted and deployed in various contexts. We also draw on recent scholarship focused on the political nature of archaeological inference to explore the complexities of trying to use the material culture of clandestine migration to demystify this highly contentious social process.

Understanding The Material And Spatial Strategies Of Border Crossers Through Water Bottles And Beverage Containers

Magda E Mankel

University of Maryland, College Park, United States of America

Because of the clandestine and complex nature of undocumented migration in southern Arizona, many aspects of this social process have proven difficult to systematically analyze using ethnography alone. Using a combination of ethnographic and archaeological data collected between 2009 and 2014, this paper uses statistical analysis to further understand the relationships between artifacts associated with clandestine migration and the material and spatial strategies migrants employ to cross southern Arizona’s desert. Drawing on Singer and Massey’s theorizations regarding undocumented migration as a social process, this analysis considers how categorical and nominal data concerning water bottles, beverage containers, distance from border, and site types provide insights into the choices and the routinized patterns of movement, consumption and deposition that migrants make throughout this process. These insights are crucial in understanding the complex endeavor that is border crossing and in building a more nuanced narrative about this experience and landscape.

“Not By Angels”: Religious Place-Making in the Sonoran Desert

Jordan E Davis

Calvin College, United States of America

When the archaeological traces of migrant religion are encountered in the Sonoran Desert by journalists, humanitarian workers, and social scientists, they are often interpreted as static containers of human belief. Previous discussions of this type of material culture have highlighted the perpetuation of colonial discourses that continue to demarcate and enforce the borders of both religious and migration studies, including the privileging of Western, Protestant, and male comprehensions of “religious experience.” The resulting marginalization and exclusion of alternative (particularly materialist) ontological frames within academic studies of religion demands critical evaluation. In an effort to better understand the material traces of embodied and emplaced religious production of Mexican and Central American undocumented border crossers, this paper draws on a rematerialized, interdisciplinary approach to religious place-making at three migrant shrine sites documented by the Undocumented Migration Project in the Bartolo Mountain region of southern Arizona.

“Flesh Wounds”: Migrant Injuries and the Archaeological Traces of Pain

Olivia P. Waterhouse1, Polina Hristova2, Andrea Dantus2, Marcela Dorfsman-Hopkin3, Jason De León2

1Barnard College of Columbia University; 2University of Michigan; 3Bryn Mawr College

While crossing the desert clandestinely, migrants routinely experience a broad range of physical injuries including dehydration, hyperthermia, exhaustion, cuts, bruises, and blisters, all of which are conceptualized by federal law enforcement to act as forms of deterrence. Drawing on a combination of interviews with migrants and experimental research on hiking injuries, we highlight the many ways that the desert hurts people and the various coping strategies that border crossers have developed. We then compare these documented physical injuries with the archaeological record to better understand what phenomenological elements of this social process leave material traces. We posit that this combination of methodological approaches can provide new insight into the migration process that is often missing from migrant narratives and push the boundaries of what studies of use-wear can tell about both contemporary and historic forms of pain and suffering that often become embedded in the archaeological record.

Pain and Perseverance: An Archaeological Study of the First-Aid and Ethnopharmacology of Undocumented Migration

Cameron Gokee

Appalachian State University, United States of America

Undocumented migrants crossing the Sonoran Desert must survive the dangers of extreme heat and rugged terrain, while simultaneously avoiding apprehension and physical abuse by the US Border Patrol. A successful migration attempt therefore depends, in part, on the ability to endure or alleviate pain experienced en route. In order to better understand how health concerns play into the strategies and experiences of migrants, this paper presents an analysis of pharmaceutical and aid-related artifacts recovered by the Undocumented Migration Project from migrant sites in southern Arizona. These materials show that pharmaceutical consumption is part of a migrant-specific habitus for coping with dangers and pain arising from both travel across the desert and preexisting conditions related to age, gender, fitness, class, or life history. When considered alongside ethnographic accounts, the use of pharmaceuticals in moments of pain may help to advance a phenomenology of border crossing in ways that informants themselves cannot.

Apparel in Peril: An archaeological study of how clothing becomes embedded with human suffering

Anna S. Antoniou, Jason De León

University of Michigan, United States of America

The Undocumented Migration Project has recovered over 4,000 articles of clothing once worn by migrants crossing the Mexico­Arizona border. This often darkly colored apparel is intended to help people furtively move across the desert and avoid detection by Border Patrol. When recovered archaeologically, this clothing is often torn, faded, and stained with bodily fluids that reflect different forms of physical pain experienced en route. Here we employ the concept of “use­wear” (i.e. modifications made to objects as a result of usage) to evince the types of routinized suffering that people undergo throughout the various stages of migration. We argue that both the specific forms of human suffering experienced by border crossers (e.g., extreme dehydration) caused by the harsh desert environment and people’s creative responses to pain are embedded in the archaeological record and offer unique insight into the social process of migration that may be difficult to get at ethnographically.

“Stepping Over the Line”: Hyper-Masculinity, Institutionalized Violence, and the Archaeology of the U.S. Border Patrol

Ashley Schubert1, Madeline Naumann2, Jason De Leon3

1Museum of Anthropology University of Michigan; 2Undocumented Migration Project; 3Department of Anthropology University of Michigan

The U.S. Border Patrol has come under heavy scrutiny following the deaths of 42 civilians since 2005, numerous reports of migrants being physically and sexually assaulted while in custody, and the surfacing of videos showing aggressive encounters between agents and U.S. citizens. Because a great deal of boundary enforcement happens in remote parts of the desert, documenting how agents do their job is difficult. In this paper, we highlight data from numerous interviews with agents, migrant narratives regarding their apprehension experiences, years of encounters with agents at checkpoints and in the desert, and two seasons of archaeological surveys focused on the material record of boundary enforcement. Drawing on these data, we argue that Border Patrol’s hyper-masculine culture coupled with limited accountability sets the stage for violent encounters with migrants and the general public alike and that the archaeological record of border enforcement offers new insight into this troubling phenomenon.

Material Boundaries of Citizenship: Central American Clandestine Migration through Mexico

John A. Doering-White

University of Michigan, United States of America

Each year, hundreds of thousands of undocumented Central American migrants transit through Mexico by hopping freight trains. Migrants navigate organized crime networks and government officials that seek to extort and detain them. They also receive assistance from sympathetic Mexican citizens and a network of humanitarian shelters that have developed along common migrant routes. Throughout this process, migrants seek to both highlight their presence as non-citizens and blend in with the citizen population. The objects that migrants carry with them, leave behind, and pick up along the way illuminate how citizenship and non-citizenship are expressed, interpreted, and manipulated amongst social and material infrastructures of clandestine mobility. By collecting and documenting the material culture of migration, along with participant observation in and around migrant shelters in southern Mexico, this paper combines ethnography and contemporary archaeology in order to investigate how the boundaries of citizenship and non-citizenship are negotiated materially through clandestine migration.

“Etched in Bone”: The Forensic Taphonomy of Undocumented Migration in the Sonoran Desert

Katherine M.W. Hall1, Anna Antoniou2, Jess Beck3, Jason De León4

1University of Puget Sound; 2University of Michigan; 3University of Michigan; 4University of Michigan

Since 1998, the remains of over 2,500 undocumented migrants have been recovered along the Arizona-Mexico border. Many of these remains are unidentified due to the rapid rate of decomposition, the disarticulation and dispersal of skeletons by animals, and the tendency of many migrants to travel without identification. In this paper we examine the nexus of taphonomic and political processes and actors that influence the decomposition, recovery, and identification of migrant bodies as well as discuss the results of two seasons of forensic experiments. We argue that the environment and scavengers can rapidly destroy remains and that the current counts of migrant fatalities grossly underestimate the actual number of deaths. Moreover, we posit that the post-mortem treatment of migrant bodies tells us much about the brutality of current border enforcement strategies and the value (or lack thereof) that the American public attaches to the lives of the undocumented.