Jason De Leon

Jason De Leon recently addressed an audience at NAU. (Courtesy photo)

As the adage goes, one man's trash is another man's treasure.

Except Jason De Leon would prefer you did not call it "trash." For him and the students involved with his project, the random refuse left behind in the southern Arizona desert by illegal immigrants moving north is an archaeological treasure trove.

De Leon, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan: Ann Arbor, spoke at the High Country Conference Center as part of the Science Writers 2011 workshop held at NAU.

The subject of his talk was the materials left behind by illegal immigrants, and what they can tell archaeologists about who these men, women and children are as well as what they bring with them when coming to America.

"It's very easy to just call it garbage, and most people do," De Leon said. "But that's just a narrow perspective on what this stuff actually means. I want to convince you that this is not just garbage: this is archaeology."

As people living in a border state, De Leon said, Arizonans have reasons to feel frustrated with both illegal immigration and the federal response to it.

"Arizona has, unfortunately, become the stereotypical place to reference when you're talking about [policies] that are anti-immigrant," De Leon said. "Arizona is a border-town state that has dealt with immigration for many years. There's a lot of economics involved with that -- a lot of social issues that come up."

As part of his research, De Leon has spent a lot of time in the Sonoran Desert, scanning the landscape for the items left behind by migrants -- what he argues is "material culture" and could reveal important details about the lives of people traveling beyond the border in southern Arizona. He said this corridor through the state has become the most popular one for illegal immigrants to traverse, specifically because a strict Border Patrol presence outside of cities like El Paso and San Diego leaves them little other choice.

"The reason that migrants are coming through southern Arizona is because the federal government wants them to," De Leon said. "They know it's an awful place to come through. The likelihood of them dying is much higher, and the environment is very, very difficult. So, when I say prevention through deterrence, it's really prevention through structurally created misery and death."

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De Leon said the trip through the desert is a deadly trial for migrants. "Coyotes" are the guides, and "Bajadores" are the bandits, but some have the misfortune of them being one in the same. According to the migrants he has spoken to, going alone is just as dangerous.

"Migrant stations" are what De Leon calls the brief camps immigrants set up in the desert. Often, he said, these camps are reused and can contain enough abandoned items to cover an area the size football field.

"These are temporary campsites where people stop in the shade," De Leon said. "Maybe they change their socks, eat a little food, change their clothes, take off their backpack or footgear. Over time, people leave stuff behind ... and we come in and document it."

Among his more interesting finds in these camps is the commercialized aspect of immigration -- customized water bottles. De Leon said that in the Mexican city of Altar -- the last stop for many before heading into Arizona -- both manufacturers and sellers knowingly attempt to pander to their customer base: those heading north.

"You learn a lot about water bottles when you stop thinking of them just as water bottles," De Leon said. "In a town with 9,000 people living in it, there are over eight water bottle factories that produce specifically for migrants."

De Leon said manufacturers will produce bottles with sayings and depictions on them that are supposed to bring good luck to those who use them. Others, he said, opt for a more practical: they sell bottles spray-painted black, a coloration migrants believe will help them hide from Border Patrol agents in the night. Regardless of how they carry it, De Leon said his research shows that -- judging from the size of the bottles -- most migrants do not bring enough water for their trip.

De Leon said the state and federal government need to be careful when doing clean-up activities so they do not accidentally destroy archaeological evidence.

Kevin Bertram is this year's NAU-NASA Science Writing Intern at the Arizona Daily Sun.

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