The president and members of congress sentenced a woman from Guatemala to capital punishment for crossing an imaginary line in search of work. The sentence was carried out on June 30 in a remote section of desert 50 miles southwest of Tucson. The woman was struggling to hike up a hill, collapsed face down on the ground, and died. Her body was found two days later by a University of Michigan archaeology team that returned on July 15 to create a memorial. It appears she was in her early 30s and her name is unknown.
Professor Jason DeLeon showed us the place where she died - a dark stain marked the ground. He has hiked that trail many times in his work to preserve migrant artifacts (items left behind on the journey) and he often rested in the shade of the mesquite tree where they were building the shrine. The view looking down the hill from there is starkly beautiful, but she was heading uphill and not able to focus on the scenery.Most of the archaeologists were students, spending part of their summer working on the Undocumented Migrant Project (UMP). The UMP is a long-term archaeological/ethnographic research project studying clandestine border crossing by migrants, and being carried out by Jason De León. This is an important project, and I can’t do it justice here, but it has been written up in Nature and Archaeology among others. De León’s blog has details of the project and links to media coverage. When I start fretting about the pointlessness of archaeology, this is one the projects I think about to feel better.
One of the indications that this is important research is an unfortunate one—it drives people nuts. I think Jason probably gets an order of magnitude more hate mail than any anthropologist in history. When I checked last night, a write-up of the UMP on Huffington Post had 1,910 plus comments (28 monotonous and depressing pages of vituperation) almost all of which seem to have accumulated within a day of the article going up. Undocumented labor is a real phenomenon, an important phenomenon, and by any reasonable standards is worth, indeed requires, study. But people get outraged that it gets studied. Why?
I think the UMP packs a double-whammy.
(1) Moral panic about undocumented immigration. Obviously anything to do with undocumented labor inspires strong reactions. For example, some of commenters object that this study “humanizes” undocumented migrants as if it is a given that this is a bad thing to do. This topic is a post in itself (a long one), but I think we can probably take the urge to demonize undocumented workers as a given, especially in the current political climate.
(2) Popular ideas about archaeology. Most of the commenters are outraged that it is archaeologists studying undocumented migration. One discomforting factor is that the UMP is studying modern refuse (”trash”). For people whose main exposure to archaeology is television, that is probably disturbing enough. I’ve certainly run into this sort of push-back when studying sites that people think are too late or too mundane. But studying the refuse of undocumented immigrants compounds the outrage. The public value of archaeology is that it is in large part the study, and creation, of heritage. Heritage is basically the identity-creating parts of the past, those bits of history that played a role in creating us (as a people or nation or whatever) today. Archaeologists studying undocumented migration implies that migrant labor is part of our heritage, our history, and our national identity.
The trouble is, it is. Demonization and fear won’t help. Careful study and understanding will.