An estimated 11.5 million undocumented migrants live in the United States. Most have come in from Mexico, eluding border patrol agents and cheating death along the way.
The U.S. Senate recently passed an immigration reform bill that would allow many of these people to become citizens. It would also toughen border security, making it more difficult for others to make their way into the country. As Congress reconvenes after the July 4 recess, the debate will now move to the House of Representatives, where the outcome is uncertain.
Crossing from Mexico to the U.S. on foot is already a formidable undertaking. In the state of Arizona, one of the busiest points of entry into the U.S., authorities apprehended some 220,000 people in the last year alone. The previous year they found the remains of 179 people who perished in the brutal Sonoran Desert, where daytime temperatures in the summer often exceed 115°F (46°C).
It's the poor and the desperate from all over Latin America who undertake this journey—men, women, and children willing to take monumental risks for a fresh start. Similar stories have played out many times in U.S. history, with each new wave of immigrants taking a leap of faith for a chance at the land of opportunity.
"We know that in a hundred years the current migrations will become romanticized and mythologized, much like the Irish experience," says University of Michigan anthropologist Jason de León. "If we don't record it now, we're going to lose the story of what really happened in the desert."
Since 2009, de León has been recording the gritty details of the story through his Undocumented Migration Project. He and his team of students interview people in Mexico who are about to attempt the journey, and those who have successfully entered the U.S. through Arizona. They also trek into the desert themselves to document what people leave behind—discarded water bottles, food wrappers, torn photos, even their own bodies.
So far, de León's team has collected 10,000 artifacts that testify to the sometimes tragic journeys. They also photograph objects just as they're found in the desert.
The backpack pictured above displays colors that a young girl might have picked out. Did she get tired and drop this? Was she forced to put it down when her group was apprehended? Did she die in the heat like so many others? Or was this something that a father carried as a reminder of home and family on his long trek? Each scenario is possible.
Many people view such dirty, torn, faded things as trash. But for de León, each is an artifact that tells a story.
—A. R. Williams