Jason De León's students created this shrine for an Ecuadorian migrant found dead in southern Arizona.
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Jason De León
Jason De León's students created this shrine for an Ecuadorian migrant found dead in southern Arizona.
ScienceOnly Human

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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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