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The Land of Open Graves

I read an interesting article in the online version of National Geographic, first reported in Bender’s Daily Immigration Bulletin.  The article is an interview with Jason De León, an anthropologist and the author of a book, The Land of Open GravesLiving and Dying on the Migrant Trail.   The author 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.  He is currently an assistant professor at the University of Michigan.   In the interview, he speaks 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.”

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.

Mr. De León advances the argument that the U.S. Policy of Prevention through Deterrence is a “killing machine.”  Essentially the U.S. government has put resources into making it impossible for migrants to cross in populated centers such as in El Paso, instead funneling people into the deserts.  In this way people have to cross through harsh environments, perhaps dying along the way.  The U.S. government’s thinking was that if people had to cross by overcoming such extreme conditions, they would stop coming.  At first Mr. De León thought it was an unintended consequence of U.S. government policy but then he came across documentation (which he has published in his book) which shows that that it was intended and that the U.S. government measures whether the policy is working by the number of deaths in the desert.  Of course, the reality is that the policy is not working.  Migrants compare their lives at home with the risks of crossing the desert and come anyway.

The author discusses the differences between the European migrant crisis and the Mexican one.  One of the main differences is that in Europe, if a person is found dead while attempting to cross, it makes the news, it is more noticeable.  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.”  Also the American public is desensitized to certain images.  A colleague of his 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.'”

During the interview, Mr. De León discusses how we can change the negative stereotypes we have of border crossers.  He explains that perhaps if the American public realized that we have created the demand for cheap labor, it is more understandable why they keep coming here.  Also we have helped to create the economic conditions that exist in Mexico currently.   Americans consume the drugs coming across the border and supply the weapons for the drug war that has turned Mexico into a battle zone.  Perhaps if we could show how this is all interconnected, people would have a little more sympathy.

Mr. De León’s book is very timely considering all the anti-immigrant rhetoric that we hear.  It helps us to understand what causes people to immigrate from Mexico and Central America and the human consequences of our immigration policies.