November 2, 2011

THE HORRIBLE THINGS OUR REMAINS WILL SAY ABOUT US:

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. (Eric Wagner, 11/01/11, Miller-McCune)

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.

Posted by at November 2, 2011 6:20 AM
  

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