For Immigrants, a Deadly Trek
Rutgers anthropologist documents humanitarian, political realities at U.S.-Mexico border.
They hike for days through a desert whose topography is lethal. They confront challenges both natural and manmade: If they survive the unforgiving heat and unrelenting cold, they are targets for the mafias that prowl the border and the security agents that patrol it.
Running short of water is a constant threat. A blister can kill.
These are the migrants, thousands at any given time, whose lives – and deaths – are at the heart of Rocio Magaña’s forthcoming book, Bodies on the Line: Life, Death, and Authority on the Arizona-Mexico Border.
Drawing on more than 30 months of field research between 2002 and 2007, Magaña examines what she calls the “productive tension” between efforts to secure the border against unauthorized migration and humanitarian efforts aimed at protecting migrants from lethal desert exposure.
Many never make it. In 2010 alone, the human remains of more than 200 people were recovered from the desert along Arizona’s southwest border.
“Everyone who crosses the desert faces the danger of dehydration and heat-related illness,” says Magaña, a professor of anthropology in the School of Arts and Sciences. “Even the most insignificant of lesions on the foot can be fatal.”
Her book, which expands on findings from her dissertation at the University of Chicago, details conditions in the Sonoran Desert, which straddles parts of the Mexican-U.S. border, including large regions of California and Arizona. The area continues to be a flash point, as Mexican nationals over the past decade continue to try – sometimes repeatedly – to make their way north for what they see as a better way of life.
Working recently with Rutgers sophomore Kasssandra Jordan through the Rutgers’ Aresty Center for Undergraduate Research, Magaña is focusing not only on civilian groups trying to help the migrants navigate the threatening landscapes but also on vigilante organizations determined to keep them from entering the United States in the first place.
“My goal is not to say it’s horrible that people die in the desert, but to show why this is happening and how complex the issue is,” says Magaña, who hopes through her research to improve the national level of civil discourse and debate over immigration policies.
Born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, the Rutgers anthropologist migrated to the United States with her parents at the age of 16, and developed a keen interest in the politics of security and policing following September 11, 2001. Her research has brought her into close contact with law-enforcement officers, diplomats, smugglers, drug dealers, and human-rights activists.
Studying under Magaña has been an eye-opener for undergraduate history major Kassandra Jordan, whose exposure to the issue of immigration had previously been limited to growing up in a borough – Freehold – where her classmates included many children of undocumented workers.
The Rutgers sophomore never realized, for example, that the simple act of leaving jugs of water for thirsty migrants could constitute a civil offense.
Under Magaña ‘s mentorship, Jordan spent last semester exploring a court case involving the faith-based organization No More Deaths, whose volunteers leave clean gallon-size bottles of drinking water in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge southwest of Tucson. Migrants frequently use the refuge’s trails on their journeys to a new home.
In 2008, Jordan says, a volunteer with No More Deaths was arrested and convicted of the crime of littering after officers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service saw him leaving one of the plastic bottles for the travelers. Daniel Millis received a citation for “disposal of waste” at a national wildlife refuge.
The formal complaint accused him of disposing of “garbage, refuse sewage, sludge, earth, rocks, and other debris.”
Just days before he was stopped, Millis had stumbled across the body of a 13-year-old girl from El Salvador who died from dehydration, Jordan says.
After a series of appeals, the Ninth Circuit eventually overturned Millis’ conviction, but the Rutgers student says her research has left her with a new and deeper understanding of immigration’s harsher realities.
“The project has had a major impact on me, because it allows me to view immigration issues in a different light. Instead of viewing it as purely a legal issue as many people do, I am able to go beyond the traditional image of ‘illegals’ and see immigration as a humanitarian issue,” Jordan says. “If other people were able to see things in this light, I think it would be a breakthrough to achieve humane borders.”
Magaña is spending 2011 at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, finishing her book under a fellowship from the National Center for Institutional Diversity, with plans to come back to Rutgers at least three times this semester. In between visits, she and Jordan will continue to collaborate electronically.
“I consider Kassie a research assistant, and I’m hoping to publish an article based on her work,” the anthropologist says.