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Documenting the Undocumented

One hot early morning last July, archaeologist Jason De León and his team were collecting artifacts in an empty stretch of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. The study area, about 55 miles south of Tucson and 40 miles north of the Mexican border, is traversed by hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants every year. Since early 2009, De León has been cataloging the objects — water bottles, diapers, knock-off Nikes, rosaries — that the migrants leave behind on the brutal journey. But on this particular morning, his team stumbled on what he’d been dreading since day one: a dead body.

De León, 36, is one of National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers, and he described his Undocumented Migration Project yesterday to a packed auditorium at NG headquarters in Washington D.C. Most of what we hear about immigration comes from the perspective of law enforcement — think Border Wars — or pandering politicians. De León is using the migrants’ discarded possessions to tell their side of the story. “This is American history in the making,” he said, “and we can use the tools of archaeology to systematically record these steps.”

Since 2000, U.S. authorities in Tucson have made 4.5 million captures of undocumented migrants (a number that includes multiple captures of the same person). De León has interviewed hundreds of these hikers and become good friends with two: Miguel and Victor*.

He met the men in the summer of 2009 when visiting a migrant shelter in the border town of Nogales, Mexico. Miguel and Victor hadn’t known each other long. They met in a detention center in Tucson, caught after living illegally for 20-odd years in the United States. After being sent back to Nogales, they tried to trek back into the U.S. together, failed, and again wound up in Nogales. They were working in the shelter for a few weeks to pay for their stay; then they’d attempt to cross the border yet again.

Miguel and Victor play poker at a migrants' shelter in Nogales, Mexico. Photo by Jason De León.
Miguel and Victor play poker at a migrants’ shelter in Nogales, Mexico. Photo by Jason De León.

De León spent a few weeks at the shelter, getting to know the two men over many hands of poker. Miguel and Victor talked optimistically about the future, promising De León that after they made it back to their home in Tucson, they’d invite him over to grill and catch up. They’d be drinking beers, but since De León was so young, they teased, he’d have apple juice.

De León went shopping with the men to get supplies for their trip. In towns like Nogales and nearby Altar, the local economy depends on migrants. Store shelves are lined with bottles of water and electrolyte juice, camouflage gear, hiking boots, first-aid kits. Altar’s baseball team is called the Coyotes, a nod to the Spanish euphemism for smugglers.

Photo by Jason De León.

Victor bought a few garlic cloves for his backpack to ward off wild animals. De León wrote a good-bye message in marker on the inside flap: “Don’t forget you owe me an apple juice.”

De  León walked with Victor and Miguel to the Western edge of town, right up to an ominous, dark tunnel that ran underneath a highway overpass. On the other side of the tunnel was the desert and, if they were lucky, a way back home. De León cried as he watched the backs of his new friends disappear.

There was a good chance, he knew, that he’d never see them again. But about three weeks later, he got a phone call from Victor. “We’re in Tucson and we’ve got your apple juice,” he said.

For the first few years of his project, De León focused on cataloging the many objects left by migrants out in the desert. It’s a fascinating collection of things both banal (bottles, paper scraps) and unique (one of his favorites is an “illegal alien card” showing a green-faced alien and an Area 51 logo on it). Sometimes these objects are found alone — a t-shirt here, a backpack there. But De León has also found “migrant stations” with huge piles of clothes and trash. Unlike traditional archaeology that’s focused on the distant past, he calls his work “the archaeology of 10 minutes ago, literally”.

De León, at right, with his team at a large site of discarded objects.
De León, seated at right, with his team at a large site of discarded objects.

More recently he’s gotten into forensics. Since 1998, some 5,600 bodies have been found on the U.S.-Mexico border. That’s thought to be a wild underestimate of the migrants who die on the trip, but no one knows much about how a dead body fares in those conditions.

After consulting with forensic experts, De León learned that pig carcasses are often used as proxies of human flesh. So last summer his team dressed a dead pig in typical migrant clothes, placed it in the middle of the desert, and set up motion cameras to watch. For the first two weeks the animal decomposed naturally. Then the vultures came. Within 24 hours, most of the pig and its clothes had disappeared, including ID cards the researchers had stuffed in the pockets.

Vultures pick on the pig carcass. Photo by Jason De León.
Vultures pick on the pig carcass. Photo by Jason De León.

De León felt uncomfortable with the brutality of that experiment, but was reminded of its purpose just two weeks later, when he found the body of a middle-aged woman face down on the desert floor. He covered her in a colorful blanket he had found nearby. Then he waited with his team for seven hours until the Tucson sheriff came to pick her up.

After she was gone, De León’s students built her a shrine, as is the custom for deceased migrants. They decorated it with a sundry collection of religious objects bought at a local store.

Some researchers pray before a shrine to a dead migrant. In the foreground, the blanket that covered her body. Photo by Jason De León.
Some researchers pray before a shrine to Marisol. In the foreground, the blanket that had covered her body.

De León, too, was moved by the experience. Over the next few weeks, he got in touch with various authorities and found out that a fingerprint analysis had identified her as Marisol, a 41-year-old mother of three from Ecuador. She had been on her way to meet family in New York.

Then De León did the hardest thing he’s ever had to do. He called her family.

He struggled, he told us, to find something positive to say.

“I picked up the phone and I said, ‘I’m the person who found Marisol. And I just wanted to let you know that we sat with her for a long time, that we waited. We sat with her before the birds could get to her.'”

*Miguel, Victor, and Marisol are pseudonyms

 Some of De León’s found objects are part of a traveling museum exhibit

18 thoughts on “Documenting the Undocumented

  1. “Undocumented”? Why so politically biased? Such a phrase lends support to these individuals ILLEGALLY entering the country. If I decided to migrant to Germany without the proper paperwork how would I not be an ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT?

    1. Hi Eric, if you read the piece, then you know that I did mention that Miguel and Victor were illegally living in the United States. It’s just not the defining piece of their identity.

  2. I’m sorry. I must say, it was a great piece and you a very talented writer, who persevered to deliver top-quality reporting.

  3. Great read, shows the grit these people have crossing that desert just to visit family… Most people wouldn’t drive it…

    Would like to know more about these people…

  4. I’m so happy to see that someone is studying this objectively. So many people are so quick to be hateful and critical. I can’t fault anyone for trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. It’s easy to sit in judgment while kicking back in your comfy recliner in front of your big screen TV.

  5. The poverty of our century is unlike that of any other.  It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich.  Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied… but written off as trash.  The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing.  ~John Berger
    It would seem that immigrants/ people who differ from our ‘religious’ beliefs or culture are treated in the same manner. How can we justify our cruelty towards our fellow human beings? This is madness and it is the antithesis to any form of God.

  6. Very moving piece, Ms. Hughes, and I appreciate your soft response to the gentleman who all but demanded you use his loaded term, as if it weren’t politically biased (just note the vehemence with which he delivered it). And, of course, the word “undocumented” in no way lends them support, it’s just less incendiary. Besides, many are indeed migrants having no intention of staying, so they are not, in fact, immigrants. Good for you, and thanks again.

  7. a very good percentage of the illegals that end up in the US are dependent on free government money. They expect it knowing that if they do not make pump out kids and get on welfare and food-stamps. Costing US taxpayers trillions of dollars. Mexico is the 12th richest country in the world, so why do American taxpayers have to pay for them.

  8. I agree with Diana. We are privileged through an accident of birth. I would like to know more also. Thanks for making the beautiful shrine.

  9. I believe that basically anyone living here that isn’t a Native American is an illegal immigrant. So saying that these people are nothing but illegals is just ignorant. Their ancestors were probably on this continent long before most people living legally in this country. We need a complete overhaul of our immigration system

  10. reguardless of my feeling on imigration, as a Archaeologist, this is a really interesting study and a fantastic way to put a face on a real human topic.

  11. para mi punto de vista lnos adentramos a irnos de indocumentados para tener mejores oportunidades de vida yarriesgamos nuestra con tal de lograrlo para el futuro de nuestros hijos

  12. Virginia,

    Excellent article, and touching. Very touching stuff. De Leon is doing a three-fold service to his fellow man: archaeologically cataloging this migratory route, opening eyes to the human element of this modern dilemma and re-inventing a science as he does it. Archaeology of 10 minutes ago. do the work now so they won’t have to guess in thousands of years. Excellent!

  13. 1) These people work.
    2) They will pay for Medicare while they work, while the retired descendants of past “legal” immigrants whine about how they are “illegal.”
    3) They work at doing what no descendant of prior immigrants are willing to do, for less money than any of those descendant would accept for ANY job. And that will keep the prices of food affordable for those whining retired, entitled descendants of “legal” immigrants.

  14. Bravo, Dan Urbach. Don’t forget the simple statement that these are PEOPLE. People are deserving of compassion and respect. People who treat other people like garbage don’t deserve respect. Those people will soon find themselves in a similar circumstance the way the world is going now. It’s only then that they’ll realize what they’ve been doing. Or maybe not even then.

  15. Where is this? I live at mile marker 49 at the edge of the unincorporated area south of Tucson, which still bears the name Tucson. The border is approximately 60 miles from Tucson’s incorporated area. 40 miles north of the border would be in the edge of Green Valley. I know how many illegal immigrants cross the border; they end up in my yard asking for water and food. I give them both and tell them “Vamos” as I do not want to be jailed for humanitarian reasons. The law states that I cannot deny water to anyone who asks for it provided I have some.

    As for Dan Urbach, I am a child of LEGAL immigrants who paid what would today be nearly $40K to get into the states from Canada. They do not pay for anything as they work under the table and the wages are not taxed. Even those who make a decent wage and drive a newer, nicer vehicle than I do will go to the hospital and tell the admissions that they have NO MONEY. I do not know where you live, but the people at Labor Ready who work just as hard at menial jobs would do what the Illegals do. Try living on the border, where the MS 13 comes up and cuts people’s fingers off in your driveway and tries to murder them under your carport. The MS 13 does not respect people or life and if you do not live on the border you DO NOT KNOW WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT. MOVE DOWN HERE AND YOUR ATTITUDE WILL CHANGE.

  16. I can not imagine living on a dirt floor, carrying water sometimes yards if not farther, with no hope of a better life or enough food for my family. Is it no wonder these people risk so much? I agree that the drug trafficking has caused much of our problems with accepting the tribulations the “honest workers” go through to get here.
    What I see here in California are a number of so-called
    illegals who pay taxes, support themselves and actually choose to stay. An increasing number of second and third generation young people, born here with all the legal rights, seem to forget the sacrifices their parents made to provide an opportunity to succeed.
    I question that there is an answer as long as greed and
    self interest are prevalent both here and in Mexico.

  17. Virginia, thank you for such a compassionate and humane article.

    Kim Campbell : could you clarify the law that states you cannot deny water to anyone who asks? Is that like a local ordnance, or an AZ state ruling or something like that? I can’t seem to find a reference…thank you!

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