The gory research that helped an academic anthropologist get a “genius” grant

Immigrants are not anonymous.
Immigrants are not anonymous.
Image: Reuters/Eric Thayer
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Whatever your position on illegal immigration, the work of anthropologist Jason de León—one of this year’s recipients of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grants—will ensure you will not be indifferent to the plight of undocumented immigrants.

Consider one of his research projects: To find out what happens to the remains of those who die in the inhospitable Arizona desert after illegally crossing the US-Mexico border, he dressed pig carcasses in immigrants’ typical garb. He outfitted them in dark-colored shirts, socks, and jeans, their pockets stuffed with wallets and paper slips with phone numbers. One even had a necklace tied around its thick head. Then de León and his team meticulously tracked how vultures tore into the pigs’ flesh, and spread animal bits and human artifacts for miles around. The results of the study, published in 2014 in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, are displayed in neat bar charts and tables.

Not all of de León’s work is quite as gory, but like the pig experiment, his other studies get at the overlooked human element of the border issues that have become front-and-center in the Trump era. The US president and other immigration hardliners have portrayed undocumented immigrants as hardened criminals; statistics, the other lens through which Americans often understand the border, has reduced them to US Border Patrol apprehension trends—which are well below historical averages, by the way.

The reality de León has uncovered through his Undocumented Migration Project, housed at University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, where he teaches, is decidedly different. For example, his documentation of the objects left behind by border crossers on their perilous journeys north helps dispel Trumpian notions of immigrants as “bad hombres” and rapists. Among the items he’s unearthed: A shirt emblazoned with the Statue of Liberty, a child’s weathered boot, and balled-up diapers.

But de León deals with criminals, too. He’s also been studying the human smugglers, or “coyotes,” who extract heavy fees from migrants with the promise of opportunity on the American side of the border. There too, his approach is rooted in the methodical techniques of forensic science, ethnography, and archeology. While he has doubts about whether hanging out with human traffickers can be considered science, he says understanding how they got to that lifestyle is important. “The caricature doesn’t really work,” he said in a University of Michigan video featuring his most recent work. “There are so many more things that are behind the scenes that people don’t talk about.”

“We want to understand each other as a species, as a society, and in order to do that we have to figure out ways to pull back on the moral judgments,” he added. It seems a practical and constructive approach at a time when deep political and cultural divides are blurring reality.

He’s planning to spend his $625,000 MacArthur grant on a research station near the Arizona border to study that reality more closely—and pay off his student loans.