An Anthropologist Unravels the Mysteries of Mexican Migration

Undocumented immigrants risk scorching temperatures, venomous creatures, and military surveillance to get into the U.S.

More than five million people were arrested between 2000 and 2013 while trying to cross the border from Mexico into Arizona. A further 6.4 million were apprehended in Texas, California, and New Mexico. Thousands more perished in the furnace-like heat of the Sonoran Desert, their bodies rarely recovered. Yet despite the arduousness of the crossing and the high-tech surveillance systems arrayed against them, most of the survivors will attempt to cross again.

Jason De León, an anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, grew up in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. His father is Mexican, his mother is from the Philippines, and he spent his childhood speaking Spanish. For his book, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail, he travelled up and down the border, interviewing would-be migrants and the relatives of those who died making the crossing. Their often harrowing stories give a human face to these desperate journeys­—and overturn many of the negative stereotypes used to discredit them.

Speaking from the University of Michigan, where he is an assistant professor, he talks about why U.S. border crossing deaths go largely unrecorded while European migrant deaths are headline news; why American economic and drugs policies helped create the crisis; and why he calls the Prevention Through Deterrence program, which funnels migrants towards the Sonora Desert, a “killing machine.”

The book opens with a gruesome scene. Put us inside that moment – and how it fits into the larger context of this issue.

It was a very shocking moment for me, partly because it was the first experience I’d had in the field. It happened in the Mexican border town of Nogales, one of the centers for migrants. Earlier that morning, I had seen this guy, who had just come back from trying to cross the desert. By the middle of the day, he had died in somebody’s front yard. It seems a fairly normal event for the people present. This body is lying there. Somebody finally covers him up, he’s taken away, and then it’s as if it didn’t happen. He’s one of thousands, though the numbers vary according to where you’re counting. If a person dies from things they experienced on the Arizona side and then comes back into Mexico and dies, that’s typically not counted as a border crossing death. But just in Arizona, from 2000 to the beginning of this year, 2,700 sets of human remains have been recovered by law enforcement.

You call the U.S. policy of Prevention Through Deterrence a “killing machine.” Explain the mechanics of the policy—and why you condemn it so strongly.

The logic of this policy is to make it impossible to cross in urban centers like El Paso, where you used to be able to hop the fence and disappear into a crowd. They have put all of this time, money and energy into making it virtually impossible to do that by funnelling people into less populated, more extreme environments. The thinking has been that the desert can be a weapon of deterrence. If enough people die while crossing, they’ll simply stop coming.

Initially, I thought migrant deaths were unintended consequences. But when I got deeper into the origins of the policy, I discovered that federal documents plainly stated that fatalities were going to increase because of this policy. One document I cite contains a table using migrant deaths as a metric for demonstrating the policy is working. Realizing that some government official was typing this up and recognizing these things, was when I thought: This is a machine that kills people. It isn’t collateral damage. These aren’t unintended consequences. These are direct consequences that, in the initial stages of design, people were thinking about.

Norwegian explorer Carl Lumholtz called the heat in the Sonoran Desert like “walking between great fires.” That’s not the only hazard, is it?

The Arizona desert has the most species of rattlesnake in North America. And you’ve got all kinds of other venomous animals - tarantulas, Gila monsters, killer bees—and hundreds of miles of empty landscape. There are bandits robbing and killing migrants and a whole series of unsolved murders and shootings of migrants by what looks to be white supremacists. The border patrol have also been implicated in the murder of undocumented migrants over the last 10 years. But most people die from dehydration or exposure or a pre-existing medical condition that becomes exacerbated by exposure to the hostile environment.

The many months and miles I’ve hiked out there, it doesn’t matter how expensive my boots are, how much water I’m carrying, or whether I have a GPS, it’s a place where it’s very difficult to survive. The migrants are wearing $10 sneakers, may be carrying a gallon of water, don’t have a compass or map or anything else to guide them, other than their wits.

Talk about the ingenious methods border crossers use to try and get into the United States – and the technology the Border Patrol deploys to stop them.

The Border Patrol spends billions of dollars on security every year, from surveillance cameras to motion sensors, helicopters, drones, and scope trucks with periscopes that can scan the landscape in 360 degrees. At night, they use infrared to pick up heat signatures of people coming through the desert. It’s military-grade technology we use elsewhere in battlefields.   

Then you have this group of people who don’t have much, except maybe they’re wearing all black to stay less visible during the day, Converse sneakers with carpet on the bottom to hide their footprints, and maybe a rosary and a Bible to bring them the luck they need. All of the technologies they’re using probably cost 20 bucks. But what gets people across is willpower. They are determined to come to the U.S. And if they are caught, they will try again. They look at this as, “Either I stay in my village and watch my children starve, or I keep pushing through until I make it.” Many say, “I have nothing to go back to.”

Former Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano said of plans to extend the security wall all along the border, “Show me a 50-foot wall, and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder.” She’s right, isn’t she?

This terrain is so remote that if you were to try to put up a wall it would be logistically impossible and prohibitively expensive to try to maintain it. The joke in places like Nogales where they do have a wall is that the city is going to fall into the center of the Earth because there are so many tunnels underneath it. [Laughs] It’s easy for Americans to say, “We’re gonna put up more walls and keep people out.”  But, as you are seeing in the European Union, walls and fences don’t stop people, they just deflect them someplace else. These are folks who are desperate and are going to find a way to get through, no matter what.

What other parallels are there with the migrant crisis in Europe?

There are a lot of parallels. The Mediterranean is in many ways like the Arizona desert. People die there, and the bodies disappear because nobody wants to claim them. The big difference with the European crisis is that it is much more visible. If you’re lying on the beach in Lampedusa in your bikini and all of a sudden a bunch of bodies washes up, that’s shocking. Or that photograph of the infant in Turkey, Aylan Kurdi, who became the human face of the migrant tragedy.

In Arizona, it happens in the middle of nowhere. There are no people with cameras or folks out there to be shocked. So it keeps going, unseen and mostly unreported. U.S mainstream media does a good job of presenting only things that don’t challenge American idealism. You’re not going to see photos of migrant corpses in the New York Times or L.A. Times. I think the American public is also desensitized to certain types of images. A colleague in Arizona did a study of local news reports about migrant deaths. What he found was that as the number of corpses went up, the news coverage went down. Migrant death became the “new normal.”  

Most of the stories you have documented are of male border crossers. But many women attempt the crossing, too. Tell us about Maricela.

We tend to generalize about border crossers. Say “undocumented migrant” or “Mexican migrant” and people tend to imagine a young Mexican male. But kids cross, transgender people cross, and many women do, too.

Maricela was someone whose body I encountered in the Arizona desert in the summer of 2012. My previous encounters with deceased people in the desert had been mostly bones. But she had been dead for 3-4 days at the most. It was very shocking and disturbing.

Maricela had accrued a lot of debt in Ecuador. Her family was living in a shantytown with a dirt floor and plywood walls. She left to provide for her three children, travelling with a people smuggler she was related to. She had kidney issues in Ecuador and that’s probably what killed her. She started suffering from extreme dehydration in the Arizona desert and was abandoned by the smuggler.

She was eventually identified by the coroner’s office and I managed to make contact both with the people she was going to join in New York and with her family in Ecuador. I made several visits to both places to try to understand who she was, why was she in the desert, and how her death affected her family.

Many Americans, particularly in Arizona, have deeply negative views about border crossers. How can those stereotypes be changed?

In an online comment about our research in the Huffington Post, one person wrote, “Maybe we should just hang these desiccated corpses from trees so that when migrants see them, they’re gonna know they’re gonna die if they cross this desert.”

Politicians use the same language. In the last election cycle, you had Herman Cain, saying, “We’re gonna put up signs saying you’ll be electrified. Don’t come here! This will kill you! ” Donald Trump and Ben Carson speak directly to people who think that if you don’t have U.S. citizenship, your life is of no value.

It’s especially acute in Arizona because in the last 15 years five million migrants have come to their backyard. But people aren’t crossing through Arizona because they love the wilderness. They’re coming because of federal policy. We also need to explain how the U.S is invested in keeping Mexico underdeveloped so we can draw cheap labor and flood them with goods we don’t want anymore. We have created the economic problems in Mexico. Americans also consume the drugs coming across the border and supply the weapons for the drug war that has turned Mexico into a battle zone. If we could show how all this stuff is interconnected, it might diminish the stereotypes.

What inspired you to write this book, Jason?

I wanted to do something that honoured the migrants and their families who entrusted me with their stories, like Maricela. I felt really conflicted whether to publish a photograph of her corpse but eventually decided I should. This was not just an anonymous corpse I found in the desert and photographed. To show her corpse is to say, “Here is a dead body in the desert. This is her name. This is her family. This is her story.” So when you look at the picture, you can try to imagine that this is a person, not just some negative stereotype.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at

Read This Next

How did Death Valley get its name? Not from the heat
Which cities will still be livable in a world altered by climate change?
Why taking a cold dip on a hot day could be deadly

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet