The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail

The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail

Paperback(First Edition)

View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


In this gripping and provocative “ethnography of death,” anthropologist and MacArthur "Genius" Fellow Jason De León sheds light on one of the most pressing political issues of our time—the human consequences of US immigration and border policy. 
The Land of Open Graves reveals the suffering and deaths that occur daily in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona as thousands of undocumented migrants attempt to cross the border from Mexico into the United States.
Drawing on the four major fields of anthropology, De León uses an innovative combination of ethnography, archaeology, linguistics, and forensic science to produce a scathing critique of “Prevention through Deterrence,” the federal border enforcement policy that encourages migrants to cross in areas characterized by extreme environmental conditions and high risk of death. For two decades, systematic violence has failed to deter border crossers while successfully turning the rugged terrain of southern Arizona into a killing field. Featuring stark photography by Michael Wells, this book examines the weaponization of natural terrain as a border wall: first-person stories from survivors underscore this fundamental threat to human rights, and the very lives, of non-citizens as they are subjected to the most insidious and intangible form of American policing as institutional violence.
In harrowing detail, De León chronicles the journeys of people who have made dozens of attempts to cross the border and uncovers the stories of the objects and bodies left behind in the desert.
The Land of Open Graves will spark debate and controversy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520282759
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 10/23/2015
Series: California Series in Public Anthropology , #36
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 120,423
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jason De León is Professor of Anthropology and Chicana/o and Central American Studies, UCLA; a 2017 MacArthur Fellow; Executive Director of the Undocumented Migration Project; and President of the Board of Directors for the Colibrí Center for Human Rights. In 2010, he hosted American Treasures, a reality-based television show on the Discovery Channel about anthropology and American history. He is currently organizing a global participatory exhibition called “Hostile Terrain 94” that will be installed in 150 locations simultaneously on six continents through the summer of 2021.

Read an Excerpt

The Land of Open Graves

Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail

By Jason De León, Michael Wells


Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-28275-9


Prevention Through Deterrence


Drive out in the late afternoon to one of the many hills on the outskirts of the tiny Arizona town of Arivaca and look west. You will see the golden sun creep behind the Baboquivari Mountains. The vanishing orb makes it look as if the distant peaks and valleys have been cut out of thick black construction paper. It's the stenciled silhouette you see in old western films. For an hour or so, the backlit barren landscape glows as though it's slowly being covered in liquid amber. The beauty of this Sonoran Desert sunset is overwhelming. It can convince you that there is goodness in nature. It will make you briefly forget how cruel and unforgiving this terrain can be for those caught in it during the height of summer. Right now I'm dreaming about that sunset; visualizing my hand plunging into a watery ice chest full of cold beers. I can feel the touch of the evening breeze on my skin. These are the tricks you play in your head during the dog days of July in the desert.

The Norwegian explorer Carl Lumholtz once wrote that the summer heat in the Sonoran Desert felt like "walking between great fires." That's putting it nicely. Right now it feels more like walking directly through flames. Despite the protection of my wide-brimmed cowboy hat, the sides of my face are sunburned after only a few minutes of exposure. Tiny water-filled blisters are starting to form on my temples, cheeks, and other places that get exposed to the sun when I lift my head or stare up at the empty blue sky. I try not to look up unless I have to duck under a mesquite tree or the trail makes a hard break left or right. Better to keep your gaze downward to watch for sunbathing rattlesnakes and ankle-twisting cobbles.

Sweat beads up and rolls off my chin, leaving behind a trail of droplets on the ground as I walk. It takes only a few seconds for these splashes to evaporate. My clothes, on the other hand, are soaking wet. I find myself periodically shivering and getting dizzy; my body is working hard to make sense of this inferno. The overpriced backpack I am wearing has started to heat up along with the water bottles it contains. This means that from here on out, every time I try to quench my thirst, it's like drinking soup. It is easily over a 100 degrees and it is only 10 A.M. My sunset and cold beer fantasies are starting to lose their efficacy. Mike Wells and I are climbing through the Tumacácori Mountains with my longtime friend Bob Kee, a member of the southern Arizona humanitarian group the Tucson Samaritans. Bob has been haunting these trails for years, leaving food and water for unseen migrants and occasionally giving first aid to abandoned souls he comes across.

It's a rough path full of sharp-angled rocks and angry mesquites whose branches all seem to be aiming for your eyes. We are moving at a fast clip, which is typical for any outing led by Bob. He is almost thirty years our senior, but is running us ragged as we struggle to keep up. Mike and I are being led by a wilderness Zen master who never seems to sweat, complain, or slow down. Every turn he makes seems to lead to another steep climb. I am convinced he seeks out the most arduous routes just to make sure that those he takes into the desert get a sense of how punishing this environment can be for migrants and anyone else who dares to hike this terrain in the middle of a summer day. "We're almost there. I promise," Bob says. I force a smile because in the past when he has told me this, it was a white lie to make me feel better. "Almost there" is one of Bob's euphemisms for "four more miles to go." On this day, however, the tone in his voice is different. He is not his normal jovial self. He hasn't been joking around, which usually includes offering to carry me on his back. It is clear that he is on a mission. We round a bend and stop. Bob calmly says: "This is the spot where I found the person. The sheriff's department came out and took away what we could find, but it was getting dark and we didn't have a lot of time to go over the entire area. It was mostly arm and leg bones and some pieces of clothing. I want to see if we can find the head. That would make it easier to identify the body. I'm sure there are still bones out here."

Just a few weeks earlier Bob had encountered the fragmented and skeletonized remains of a border crosser in this area. It was the second person he had found in under a month. He called the police, who sent two detectives out to remove what bones they could find. Bob says they spent five minutes poking around before they called it quits. It was too damn hot and the cops were unprepared and unmotivated to do a large-scale survey. Besides, searching for the bones of dead "illegals" has never been a top priority for any law enforcement agency out here. The three of us have returned and are now looking for the rest of what was once a living, breathing person.

Bob is right. There are bones that the detectives overlooked, but we have to cover a lot of ground before we find any of them. There are pieces strewn everywhere. We walk downslope and see part of an articulated arm wedged between two rocks. Aside from sinew still holding the bones together, it has been picked clean of skin and muscle by an unknown creature. Further up the trail I notice several white flecks that stand out against the red mountain soil. It looks as if someone dropped a box of blackboard chalk on the ground. I get closer and realize they are splinters of human bone, mostly sun-bleached rib fragments that have been cracked and gnawed by some long-gone animal. Just off the trail I spot a complete tooth lying on top of a rock. This dental find gives us hope that the skull is nearby.

We start a desperate search for this person's head. Rocks are overturned. Subterranean nests are probed. Bleeding hands blindly grope under thick brush in hopes of finding bones that may have been squirreled away by scavengers or deposited by monsoon flood waters. Everyone is moving with great urgency despite the debilitating heat. After forty-five minutes of intensive survey, we give up. There is no skull. There are no other teeth. We do, however, come across a pair of worn-out hiking boots in close proximity to some of the bones. Where the hell is the skull? I start imagining what has happened to it. A montage of laughing vultures rips this person's eyeballs out of the sockets. I hallucinate two coyotes batting the head around like a soccer ball so that they can access brain matter through the foramen magnum. It's a moment when you despise the capacity of the human imagination. People whose loved ones have disappeared in this desert will tell you that it's the not knowing what happened to them coupled with the flashes of grotesque possibility that drive you insane.

Mike starts snapping photographs while Bob collects bones. The gnarled arm fragment goes into a black trash bag. The ribs and tooth fall into a Ziploc. Bob scribbles down the GPS coordinates and will later deliver the remains to the sheriff's office, where he will be scolded for "disturbing a crime scene." The irony of the statement is that the police were already out here once and Bob is simply collecting what they overlooked during their hasty survey. The fact of the matter is that although this is a crime scene, few people actually care or want to know what has happened here. For many Americans, this person — whose remains are so ravaged that his or her sex is unknown — is (was) an "illegal," a noncitizen who broke US law and faced the consequences. Many of these same people tell themselves that if they can keep calling them "illegals," they can avoid speaking their names or imagining their faces. The United States might be a nation founded by immigrants, but that was a long time ago. Countless citizens today suffer historical amnesia and draw stark divisions between the "noble" European immigrants of the past and Latino border crossers of today. How quickly they forget about the violent welcome receptions that America threw for the Irish, Chinese, and many other newly arrived immigrant groups. The benefit of the chronological distance from the pain and suffering of past migrations is that many Americans today have no problem putting nationality before humanity. A cursory glance at the online comment section of a recent article titled "Border Crossing Deaths More Common as Illegal Immigration Declines" provides insight into some of the more extreme anti-immigrant perspectives on migrant death:

I'm not condoning deaths or anything, and I do think it's cruel to let a human being die in pain, but in a way isn't it better? I mean after all some of these people are risking their lives because there are nothing better [sic] back home, and if they die on the way, at least they end their sufferings [sic.]

Since it is a common practice to print indications on everything in the US, and since just printed indications will not ... [deter] people from entering the US illegaly [sic], why not ... take some of those dried out corpses, hang them at the places where they [migrants] are known to cross with a legend, "This may be you in a couple of days."

When you see such comments, which accompany practically every article about migrant death on the Internet, you think you're mistakenly reading the American Voices column from the satirical newspaper The Onion. It should be easy to dismiss responses like these as extreme forms of Internet hate speech, but this disregard for the lives of undocumented people and the idea that dead bodies should act as a form of deterrence to future migrants are fundamental components of the US federal government's current border security strategy.

But that fact doesn't really matter as we survey the ground for more human remains. The desert has already started to erase this person, along with whatever violence and horror she or he experienced. This event will soon be forgotten before it was ever known.


Many border researchers turn to Giorgio Agamben's influential work on sovereignty, law, and individual rights to understand the role that the physical space between adjoining nations plays in the construction of citizens, noncitizens, and state power. Agamben's state of exception — the process whereby sovereign authorities declare emergencies in order to suspend the legal protections afforded to individuals while simultaneously unleashing the power of the state upon them — is a particularly salient concept for those working on the margins of nation-states. It is here that the tensions of sovereignty and national security are both geolocated and visibly acted out on a daily basis. Like Agamben's characterization of the concentration camp, the spatial arrangement of borders often allows a space to exist outside the bounds of normal state or moral law. Border zones become spaces of exception — physical and political locations where an individual's rights and protections under law can be stripped away upon entrance. Having your body consumed by wild animals is but one of many "exceptional" things that happen in the Sonoran Desert as a result of federal immigration policies.

Roxanne Doty has pointed out that the US-Mexico border forms an exemplary space of exception where those seeking to enter the country without permission are often reduced to bare life — individuals whose deaths are of little consequence — by border policies that do not recognize the rights of unauthorized migrants. At the same time, these policies expose noncitizens to a state-crafted geopolitical terrain designed to deter their movement through suffering and death. The perception that the lives of border crossers are insignificant is reflected in both their treatment by federal immigration enforcement agencies and in the pervasive anti-immigrant discourse, including the online comments cited above. Contributing to this dehumanization is the fact that the Sonoran Desert is remote, sparsely populated, and largely out of the American public's view. This space can be policed in ways that would be deemed violent, cruel, or irrational in most other contexts. Just imagine how people would react if the corpses of undocumented Latinos were left to rot on the ninth hole of the local golf course or if their sun-bleached skulls were piled up in the parking lot of the neighborhood McDonald's.

The isolation of the desert combined with the public perception of the border as a zone ruled by chaos allows the state to justify using extraordinary measures to control and exclude "uncivilized" noncitizens. It is a location "where the controls and guarantees of judicial order can be suspended — the zone where the violence of the state of exception is deemed to operate in the service of 'civilization.'" Sovereign power produces migrants as excluded subjects to be dealt with violently while simultaneously neutralizing their ability to resist or protest. The environment becomes a form of deterrence so that "the raw physicality" of the desert "can be exploited and can function to mask the workings of social and political power." If we dare to approach this frightening geopolitical space, we can see how America's internal surveillant gaze functions, and understand why maps of this region should be labeled "Here be monsters."

As we start to walk away from this death site, I notice something on the ground. Crouching down, I pick up a piece of bone smaller than my fingernail. It immediately crumbles to dust. I try to hand it to Bob, and an unexpected breeze passes through and blows many of the particles off my hand. I scrape what I can from my finger and sprinkle it into the bag. It's a futile gesture. There is little that forensic scientists can do with bone dust. This person will likely become a line in the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner's database of migrant fatalities reading: "Name: Unknown. Age: Unknown. Country of Origin: Unknown. Cause of Death: Undetermined (partial skeletal remains)." The identity of this individual and much of his or her body has been swallowed up by the desert, and there were no witnesses. Bare life has been reduced to shoes, shards of bone, and the "Unknown."

* * *

I often think about this particular day, for two reasons. First, we know this death and its physical erasure are by no means a unique event. Between October 2000 and September 2014, the bodies of 2,721 border crossers were recovered in southern Arizona alone. Approximately 800 of these individuals are still unidentified. Second, this particular moment in the desert perfectly illustrates the structure, logic, and corporeal impact of current US border enforcement policy. This point was driven home in the spring of 2012 when I visited the Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales (see chapter 5). The stucco walls of this nonprofit organization are always decorated with glossy Mexican government fliers that warn about the conditions in the desert, oversized maps produced by the group Humane Borders showing locations of border crosser deaths, and photocopied posters put up by family members of missing migrants. It wasn't until 2012, though, that I noticed for the first time a tiny sign on the wall of the men's bathroom that had been produced by the US Department of Homeland Security. In Spanish the flier warned, "The next time you try to cross the border without documents you could end up a victim of the desert." This line was accompanied by a pathetic cartoon drawing of a saguaro cactus.

I laughed at this crude representation of the desert, but also started thinking about how this was one of the few times I had seen a warning sign produced by the US government in a Mexican shelter. More interesting, however, was that the wording of the pamphlet personified the desert as a perpetrator of violence targeting migrants. Conveniently, this flier contains no mention of the tactical relationship between federal border enforcement policy and this harsh landscape. When put in historical context, however, this public service announcement offers insight into the structure of the Prevention Through Deterrence (PTD) strategy that since the 1990s has deliberately funneled people into the desert. It also illustrates the cunning way that nature has been conscripted by the Border Patrol to act as an enforcer while simultaneously providing this federal agency with plausible deniability regarding blame for any victims the desert may claim. In what follows, I outline the history and logic of PTD and begin to draw the connections between border enforcement policies and the migrant suffering and death that I explore in detail in the rest of the book.


Excerpted from The Land of Open Graves by Jason De León, Michael Wells. Copyright © 2015 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Prevention Through Deterrence
2. Dangerous Ground
3. Necroviolence
4. Memo and Lucho
5. Deported
6. Technological Warfare
7. The Crossing
8. Exposure
9. You Can’t Leave Them Behind
10. Maricela
11. We Will Wait until You Get Here
12. Epilogue
Appendix A. Border Patrol Apprehensions, Southern Border Sectors, 2000–2014
Appendix B. Border Patrol Apprehensions, Tucson Sector, by Distance from the Border, Fiscal Years 2010 and 2011

Customer Reviews