[Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include new information since its original publication in the Spring 2013 issue of LSA Magazine.]

June 2017: In the four years since we first featured Anthropology Professor Jason De León and his Undocumented Migration Project (UMP) in LSA Magazine, his work has continued to draw attention to the plight of undocumented immigrants—and has drawn attention to the significance of the project itself. Items from the UMP, which is a long-term anthropological analysis of clandestine border crossings, will be included in a new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History opening on June 28.

“Many Voices, One Nation” assembles important symbols from cultures and people who have created the cultural terrain we recognize as the United States. Several UMP artifacts collected along the US/Mexico border appear in the exhibit, including articles of clothing and a picture frame. The exhibition catalog also contains an essay written by De León called “The Desert Colossus: Fragments of Twenty-First Century Undocumented Migration,” which traces migrants’ the treacherous journeys along the border and ponders the reasons the items might have been left behind.

“It has been a long hard fight to get people to stop referring the objects that people leave in the desert as simple ‘trash,’ says De León. “The inclusion of some of these materials in the Smithsonian is a major step towards public recognition that the undocumented Latino experience deserves to be included in American history.”

A related exhibition, “State of Exception,” also included UMP artifacts. It recently closed at Parsons School of Design in New York. The show, which was a collaboration with Institute for the Humanities curator Amanda Krugliak and photographer Richard Barnes, received rave reviews from critics at the New York Times and other magazines.

In 2016, De León received the Margaret Mead Award for public scholarship for his book The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail. The committee praised his De León’s unique mix of anthropological approaches to depicting the journey and suffering of migrants crossing the border.


In this part of the Sonoran desert, the terrain is uneven, rocky. It’s a jagged, mountainous expanse where the 110-degree temperatures can kill you by day, and armed bandits can kill you by night.

The deadliness of this place is precisely why migrants use it to cross illegally into the United States. It’s hard for Border Patrol to find anyone out here among the hills and shadows and scrub. It’s also hard for anyone to save you if you get into trouble during a crossing—and many do.

Hundreds perish here annually. Often their bodies are never found. They are dubbed los desaparecidos, or “the disappeared,” a term once reserved for the victims of brutal Latin American regimes—innocents who were carted off in the middle of the night, and never heard from again.

It’s not just the bodies that go missing, but also the stories. What happened on the journey? What went wrong? Who was this person? There are clues, however. LSA Professor of Anthropology Jason De León has spent long hours in the Sonoran environs, cataloging the items migrants leave behind as they attempt to cross into the United States. Water jugs. Shoes. Small kids’ toys. It looks like trash, but these objects, collected through his Undocumented Migrant Project (UMP), become data to help construct a record of people who are largely unknown, whose journeys rarely come to light. 

It’s a polarizing investigation to be sure. More than half of Americans—61 percent—believe that there would be less poverty in the United States if immigration laws were better enforced, according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform. An even higher percentage of U.S. voters—67 percent—say that military troops should be deployed to the Mexican border to prevent illegal immigration.

But De León says his work is about much more than studying people who break the law. “[Illegal immigration] doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” he says of the social and economic motivations that prompt migrants to cross into the United States, and the complex economic structures that allow millions in profit from the illegal journeys. “There are processes in play here that people don’t like to talk about, whether it’s trade relationships with Mexico, or the companies that migrants work for when they come to the United States, or global industries that make money by hanging them out to dry. The narrative of this kind of migration is usually, ‘here is a sad tale,’ but if you look at the objects, they can tell you how much more is going on.”

Beyond Trash

Since the start of UMP in 2009, De León and his team of undergraduate and graduate students have hiked the dusty, gravely trails of Sonora to find and document migrant stations. These locations—sometimes no more than a copse of scraggly bushes or a dried gully—are where migrants rest, clean up, change clothes, and leave items behind before meeting their U.S.-side contacts and being shuttled out of the elements.

US/Mexico border at night near the town of Nogales, Arizona's largest international border community. [Top:] A tree carved by a migrant in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. 

Migrant stations are strewn with detritus, but De León has approached them with archaeological precision. “People who say it’s trash fail to recognize the historical, political, and global economic forces that have shaped this process and given it an archaeological footprint.”

De León and his team begin to make sense of the stuff by mapping the site systematically. “We take a GPS with us so we can see [the artifacts] on a regional scale,” explains Ashley Schubert, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology, who helps De León train undergraduate students in field methodologies. Members of the crew then “complete an inventory form noting things like the number of jeans found, whether they belonged to an adult or child, male or female,” as well as other relevant details. After the documentation process, items for further study are bagged along with the site number, location, artifact description, and name of the person collecting it, and brought back to De León’s lab in West Hall at U-M.

Undergraduates who participate in this hands-on field school “get to see the whole archeological process,” says Schubert, “from having preliminary questions to collecting data, to analyzing it.”

But what does any of this stuff say? What meaning is there to be derived from discarded shoes and backpacks?

One insight is how companies have engaged in sophisticated market evolution to exploit the so-called needs of the migrants in the desert. One example is the black water bottle.

“In 2009, I saw a black water bottle for the first time,” recalls De León. “It was a horizon marker,” he adds, using the archaeological term for when something very specific to a time period first shows up in the historical record.

Prior to 2009, migrants would paint their water bottles black or cover them in black plastic, believing that this made them less visible during a crossing. But in 2009, De León says he saw the first instance of a black water bottle specifically designed and distributed by a company.

“The shape, the color, even the patron saint on the label are all playing into migrant beliefs about what happens during a crossing,” De León says. They key here, however, is the word beliefs, because the black water bottles aren’t actually aiding migrants at all. In fact, according to De León, they’re liabilities.

Border Patrol agents largely use sensors, aerial drones, and thermal imaging in the field. So the idea that the opaque plastic reduces visibility against this technology is what De León calls “folk logic.” What’s more, he and colleagues conducted tests on the daily temperature of the black water bottles, comparing it to the daily temperature of the water inside clear plastic bottles, and found a 15-degree difference. The black water bottles eventually heated to 126.3 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 6.3 degrees higher than the recommended temperature setting for a domestic water heater.[1]

Thus, in an inhospitable location where exposure and exothermic reactions (overheating) are the leading causes of death, drinking hot water accelerates the dangers. Black-bottle manufacturers perpetuate myths about the bottles’ effectiveness and, by doing so, they increase the personal risks for those who use their products.

In addition, De León and his team have found scads of cheap knock-off tennis shoes. Migrants buy them because they are all they can afford, they believe the footwear will help them fit in, once they reach the United States, or they have been told by Mexican vendors that a particular brand leaves no footprint or makes less noise in the desert at night. The reality is that these poorly made shoes disintegrate during treacherous crossings. De León has uncovered bloody socks, gauze, and worn-out shoes—one desperately tied back together with the strap of a bra.

“We find these items over and over at the migrant stations,” De León says. “They’re deceptively simple objects, but they show a complex industry that’s grown out of border crossings.”

Looking south at the border wall between Nogales, Mexico, and Nogales, Arizona.

What’s also apparent is the suffering that is associated with the collected pieces. “A close inspection of the objects shows how each betrays their user in different ways,” De León writes in American Anthropologist. “As an archaeological assemblage, a pattern of use wear emerges that is indicative of routinized and intense physical suffering.”

The suffering was all too apparent for Schubert, who was part of a research group last summer that stumbled upon a deceased migrant. “It was a woman,” Schubert recalls. “It was one of those situations you know you might encounter, but hope never happens.”

In spite of the potentially gruesome nature of the fieldwork, Schubert wants to return to the desert next summer to investigate crossing artifacts specifically associated with the U.S. Border Patrol. It’s another side to the story that emerges among the objects: that the migrants aren’t the only one leaving things behind.

“There are plastic restraints, fast-food items, tires, car batteries—a lot of things that aren’t good for the environment,” Schubert says. The objects say a lot about how and where migrants are apprehended, for example, but Schubert wants to look deeper into the environmental impact of migration policies and practices.

In the meantime, the items that have already been pulled from the desert are stored in De León’s West Hall lab in white boxes, stacked ceiling-high, with neatly printed labels on the outside.

Students like Melissa Needham, a junior majoring in anthropology, will help organize and catalog the items for further study—and in one case for display. This past spring, Needham helped ready objects for LSA’s Institute for Humanities exhibit titled State of Exception. It was the first major curation of De León’s work since UMP began in 2009, and included a combination of objects, installation, and video shot by photographer Richard Barnes along the U.S./Mexico borer. Among the items in the showing was a piece of the blanket used to cover the deceased migrant that Schubert and the other team members found.

“A lot of people don’t see undocumented migration from this view,” Needham says. “It’s eye opening.”    

Needham also documented visitor’s reactions to the exhibit for a project affiliated with the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP). Through a comment book at the exhibit, visitors were allowed to write down their thoughts and feelings about the backpacks, shoes, bottles, personal effects, and other items on display.

Makes me uncomfortable, wrote one visitor. Are you documenting their struggle or yours?

“There’s been no shortage of verbiage,” Needham says. “Whether good or bad, it doesn’t really matter. I think it’s great that people are just having some sort of reaction.”

The project underscores how no object can provide meaning entirely on its own, and De León’s team will continue to connect the found items to ethnographic work conducted in the field, including conversations with migrants in Nogales, Mexico. “We can only make sense of this using face-to-face interviews,” De León says.

If the Dead Could Talk

It all will add to a larger understanding of the new migration landscape. After all, these aren’t the crossings of 15 years ago, when migrants snuck in at checkpoints or dashed into traffic to cross highways dissecting Mexico and the United States. Migration has changed thanks to recent legislation by the Obama administration, the addition of thousands of border patrol agents throughout California, Texas, and Arizona, not to mention growing numbers of bandits and drug cartels that prowl the desert.

In 2011, 62 percent fewer migrants attempted to cross the border illegally than in 2007; however the proportion of border crossing fatalities continues to rise, according to U.S. Border Patrol numbers. From 2001 to 2011, more than 2,100 immigrants died in Sonora, 249 in 2010 alone.

Moving forward, De León, who is the grandson of an illegal immigrant, wants to look more closely at what, exactly, happens to the bodies in the desert.

Many go unclaimed. “There are more than 700 unidentified human remains in Tucson,” he says. “It’s another, though more morbid, type of artifact.”

It all shines light on what happens behind the scenes—as politicians debate and policies are rejected and passed, thousands of migrants walk into the desert. Some never walk out. Their stories are lost.

“This process is shrouded in mythology and rhetoric. I’m saying, here’s a social phenomenon that no one’s trying to understand, let’s look at it.”

De León picks up a boot on his desk, which he found 60 miles from the border. Whoever it once belonged to had walked a long way—likely lost.

“I want to document what’s really happening. Not what people think is occurring, not what they want to believe, but what’s actually taking place.” 

All photos by Richard Barnes.