“The real focus today is on death,” Dr. Jason De Léon said starkly. “The point is not to sanitize this stuff.”
De Léon, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, presented at The Land of Open Graves: Necroviolence and the Politics of Migrant Death in the Arizona Desert, a March 19, 2015 event hosted by Syracuse University’s Department of Anthropology. He is the director of the Undocumented Migration Project, a long-term study of undocumented migration between Mexico and the United States.
Once, De Léon’s team went searching for the body of an undocumented migrant in Arizona’s Sonoran desert. They found hiking boots and a tooth, but only partial skeleton dust, he said. Close to 3,000 bodies have been recovered in Arizona since 2000, a number De Léon argued is “grossly undercounted.”
But deaths on the U.S.-Mexico border are not an unintended consequence of border enforcement, he argued. Rather, they are “highly intended.” He referred to the U.S. government’s strategy of “prevention through deterrence,” which pushes undocumented migrants into more difficult environments in the Sonoran desert. The Border Patrol’s “Strategic Plan,” a document that has evolved since the mid-1990s, originally explicitly outlined forcing migrants into “mortal danger” or “over more hostile terrain” if they tried to cross the border.
“Migrant life is constructed as expendable,” De Léon said. “Migrants are non-citizens with no rights.”
De Léon defined necroviolence as a process that “allows torture to continue beyond the moment a body stops breathing.” He called the destruction of migrant corpses acts of terror.
“The U.S. standpoint is, ‘look at how savage and brutal these Mexicans are,’” De Léon said. “But we’re not thinking about how we are directly implicated in this stuff.”
De Léon’s book, The Land of Open Graves will be published in September 2015.