Thirty miles from the Mexican border, in the Altar Valley in Arizona, “Minutemen” patrol a remote stretch of the Sonoran desert where migrants have abandoned their belongings. photograph by Andrew Lichtenstein
Thirty miles from the Mexican border, in the Altar Valley in Arizona, “Minutemen” patrol a remote stretch of the Sonoran desert where migrants have abandoned their belongings.  Photograph by Andrew Lichtenstein

QCOSTARICA – For the Cuban migrants stranded in Costa Rica and those still to come, their journey is far from over. They are less than half way, with the worst to come, Mexico, the last leg before crossing the border into the United States.

Facing the Cuban migrants is the furnace-life heat of the Sonoran Desert and the high-tech surveillance systems arrayed against those trying to cross the border.  While other migrants who try to cross into the U.S. try to do so without being caught, Cubans who reach U.S. soil are granted refuge under the “wet foot, dry foot policy”.

Central American Migration Route
Central American Migration Route

But they have to get to the other side first.

Between 2000 and 2013 more than five million people were arrested while trying to cross the border from Mexico into Arizona. A further 6.4 million were apprehended in Texas, California and New Mexico.

In his book, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail, Jason De León, an anthropologist and National Geographic Emerging Explorer, 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.

 The border town of Nogales is a popular transit point for migrants to cross from Mexico into Arizona, despite fences like this one. photograph by Diane Cook, Jen Jenshel

The border town of Nogales is a popular transit point for migrants to cross from Mexico into Arizona, despite fences like this one. Photograph by Diane Cook, Jen Jenshel

De León 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.

 “I have nothing to go back to,” is a common sentiment among migrants, who will often make as many as ten attempts to cross the border. This girl, playing in front of her makeshift home in a shanty town outside Oaxaca, Mexico, may one day join them. photogragh by Stringer Mexico, Reuters, Corbis

“I have nothing to go back to,” is a common sentiment among migrants, who will often make as many as ten attempts to cross the border. This girl, playing in front of her makeshift home in a shanty town outside Oaxaca, Mexico, may one day join them. Photograph by Stringer Mexico, Reuters, Corbis

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.

 Fences, like this one stretching through Tohono O’Odham Nation tribal lands in Arizona, have done little to stem the flow of migrants. photograph by John Moore, Getty Images
Fences, like this one stretching through Tohono O’Odham Nation tribal lands in Arizona, have done little to stem the flow of migrants. Photograph by John Moore, Getty Images

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