“These are people. They’re not statistics.” New exhibit highlights dangers faced by undocumented immigrants


Josie Anderson, Managing Editor

Content warning: mentions of death and murder

Latinos United for Advancement and UM-Flint’s Anthropology Club have come together to bring a new art exhibit to Flint focusing on the dangers faced by undocumented immigrants crossing the U.S through the Sonoran Desert. 

The exhibit, known as Hostile Terrain 94, is part of the Undocumented Migration Project and brings awarness to the countless lives lost in the harsh conditions of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. 

The exhibit will take place in the Flint Farmers’ Market from Saturday, Nov. 13 to Saturday, Nov. 27 on Tuesday, Thursdays and Saturdays. 

Come to life in Flint after a visit from Jason De León, the project documents the countless immigrants who have lost their lives crossing the Sonoran Desert into the United States since 1994. Each person is remembered by a toe tag detailing any available information, which is then placed on a map pinpointing the location of their death. 

“The numbers that are presented in this exhibit are probably actually, in real life, much larger,” UM-Flint assistant professor of anthropology Daniel Birchok said. 

“One of the problems here is that these are the folks that we know about, but in the desert bodies decompose quite quickly.” Birchok said. “He (De León) suspects the number is probably double what we know.”

While the desert is filled with harsh conditions, many might expect to see exposure listed as a cause of death. Yet, many of those involved in the project found something different. According to English lecturer and LUNA Advisor Stephanie Gelderloos these various causes of death  further highlights the dangers people face at the border.

“It’s not just the desert, it’s not just thirst or starvation, it’s not heat,” Gelderloos added. “Some of them were beaten to death or died of blunt force trauma to the head. Some of them were shot … two weeks ago, in class, we found someone who had been hanged. A migrant who had been hanged. That was his cause of death and it was ruled as a homicide on the toe tag. How do you have an accidental hanging?” 

Still more deaths included drownings and a stillborn baby. Jina Bhagat, an English major at UM-Flint, was introduced to the project as an extra-credit opportunity in one of her courses. Bhagat described the harrowing process of filling in the toe tags. 

“These are people. They’re not statistics, they’re people,” Bhagat said. “They had a home and family … some of them have moms at home waiting and they don’t even know that their kid is dead.”

After an increase in negative rhetoric towards immigrants and their motivations for migrating, Gelderloos thinks an exhibit such as Hostile Terrain 94 plays an important role in humanizing those crossing the border. 

They aren’t criminals, Gelderloos explained, just people searching for a better life. A life they are willing to travel thousands of miles, cross dangerous terrain, and risk their lives for.

“They’re coming here because the life they have in Honduras, in Mexico, wherever they come from is unlivable,” Gelderloos said. She wants this project to help people recognize the threat at the border and understand that whatever is pushing these people is stronger than their own concerns about their own life.

“I think it’s important that specifically white, non-latine people expose themselves to the life situations of people who are less fortunate than them, people who have to cross the border,” student and Cultural Anthropology major Jude Krajnyak said. 

Krajnyak thinks exposure to experience is important. “Putting into context the amount of privilege that we have living in the U.S. and living as citizens in the U.S. was a big takeaway for me,” he said. “Remembering these people for who they were, the fact that they had families and people who cared about them and for a lot of them there was no closure for their families

It’s important to take the time to “really let that sink in,”  Krajnyak said, “and consider the effects that our country and our policies and the way that we treat other people from other countries has on their tangible lives and their everyday experiences.”

A screening of the documentary “Border South” was available in the Kiva this week, followed by a live Q+A with director and producer Raúl O. Paz Pastrana via Zoom on Friday, Nov. 12, before the exhibit opened the following day. 

“Border South” follows the vicious journey immigrants must take to travel north and documents one anthropologist’s efforts to help identify those who were lost along the way, ultimately leading to this project. 

Birchok recommends filling in toe tags for those who have the opportunity. Other opportunities are also available for those who would like to take part in the exhibit, such as pinning toe tags to the exhibit, answering questions during its run, or helping to disassemble it after. 

The exhibit serves as a reminder that immigrants are more than a noun. They’re people. “Treat them and their history with some dignity. Respect their choices for crossing that border,” Bhagat said. “That’s a really brave thing to do.”

More information about the Hostile Terrain 94 exhibit in Flint can be found here, or on the Undocumented Migration Project site.