Historical Context

Crossing the bor­der be­tween Mexico and the United States with­out au­tho­riza­tion is now a life-threatening jour­ney. Whereas once, un­documented mi­grants — the ma­jor­ity from Mexico and Central America — en­tered the U.S. through bor­der cities, they now must walk long dis­tances through harsh and sparsely in­hab­ited ter­rain. This his­toric ge­o­graphic shift in unau­tho­rized bor­der traf­fic is the re­sult of Border Patrol op­er­a­tions in the late 1990s, which aimed to shift bor­der crossers away from ur­ban cen­ters and into re­mote rural ar­eas. The Coalición de Derechos Humanos (2010) es­ti­mates that 5,000 bodies have been re­cov­ered from the south­ern U.S. bor­der­lands. View Report

As un­documented mi­grants travel north, they trans­form the land­scape in small, yet sig­nif­i­cant ways through the things they leave be­hind, from shel­ters and shrines to quo­tid­ian ob­jects. Water bot­tles, food, med­ica­tions, clothes, as well as ob­jects with per­sonal mean­ing such as fam­ily pho­tographs, books, re­li­gious cards and can­dles, and hand-embroidered cloths (bor­da­dos) are lost, dis­carded, or de­posited along the way, pro­duc­ing cul­tural land­scapes sig­nal­ing in­ti­mate ex­pe­ri­ences as well as per­sonal and col­lec­tive identifications.

How and why do mi­grants re­arrange land­scapes, mark­ing them with signs of every­day ne­ces­si­ties, spir­i­tu­al­i­ties, and homes? In what ways do such cul­tural land­scapes make claims to space in the con­text of highly charged con­tests over na­tional be­long­ing in the U.S.? Do land­scapes of mi­gra­tion play a part in form­ing a col­lec­tive iden­tity for a peo­ple made in­vis­i­ble by U.S. im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies? To con­tem­plate these ques­tions, we draw your at­ten­tion to three fig­ures that re­cur in the pho­tographs: the Virgin Mary, fences, and wa­ter bottles.


The fol­low­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions of­fer in­for­ma­tion about hu­man rights, en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, mi­grant ar­ti­facts, and bor­der se­cu­rity in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.


The fol­low­ing ref­er­ences of­fer ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion about the land­scapes of mi­gra­tion and U.S. bor­der security.

Jason De León (2012) Better to be hot than caught: Excavating the con­flict­ing roles of mi­grant ma­te­r­ial cul­ture. American Anthropologist 114(3): 477–495.

Defenders of Wildlife. 2006. On The Line: The Impacts of Immigration Policy on Wildlife and Habitat in the Arizona Borderlands. Washington, DC: Defenders of Wildlife. View Report

Joseph Nevins. 2008. Dying to Live: a story of US im­mi­gra­tion in an age of global apartheid. San Francisco, CA: City Lights Publishers.

Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, M. Melissa McCormick, Daniel Martinez, Inez Magdalena Duarte. 2006. The “fun­nel ef­fect” and re­cov­ered bodies of unau­tho­rized mi­grants processed by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, 1990–2005. The Binational Migration Institute, University of Arizona. View Report

Juanita Sundberg. 2008. “Trash-Talk” and the Production of Quotidian Geopolitical Boundaries in the United States-Mexico Borderlands, Social & Cultural Geography, 9(8) pp. 871–890.

U.S. Government Accountability Office. 2006. Illegal Immigration: Border-Crossing Deaths Have Doubled Since 1995; Border Patrol’s Efforts to Prevent Deaths Have Not Been Fully Evaluated. View Report

U.S. Government Accountability Office. 2004. Border Security. Agencies Need to Better Coordinate Their Strategies and Operations on Federal Lands. View Report