Michigan MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant Winner Uses Artifacts to Explore Immigration Policies

“People…are captivated by individual objects — a pair of baby shoes, a baby bottle, a dog-eared Bible, love letters.”

Immigration has long been one of the most contentious issues in our country. But it has stirred up even more controversy since the election of Donald Trump, who espouses isolationist and hard-line anti-immigration policies.  

We hear a lot of anecdotal stories about the human toll of U.S. immigration policies — families torn apart, people living in fear of deportation, employers taking advantage of vulnerable workers. 

But one University of Michigan anthropologist is using artifacts to tell these stories in a more tangible way.

Jason De Leon collects artifacts left behind in desert by migrants — living and dead — near the southern border with Mexico.

He recently won a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant for his work.

De Leon joins Detroit Today with Stephen Henderson to talk about his work and the importance of this kind of research.

“When I think about archaeology, really all it means is it’s the study of the past through material remains,” says De Leon.

“It doesn’t mean that the past has to be 5,000 years ago. I mean, the past could be very much this morning.”

“People… are captivated by individual objects — a pair of baby shoes, a baby bottle, a dog-eared Bible, love letters — things that are quite personal, intimate, that speak to an individual’s story of hardship or survival or optimism,” he continues. “And I think that’s one way of thinking about this project. For me, archaeologically-speaking, it’s much more about all of this stuff together.”

“It’s partly to tell these individual stories about the children that I’ve come across, the people seeking to reunite with their families, the hardship and the death that happens in the desert. But it’s also about the massive number of people who have gone through this process.”

Click on the audio player above to hear the full conversation.


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