In this Episode, Radical Futures Now is so excited to tap into the great wisdom of Jason De Leon on issues Immigration and Migration. Jason De León is Professor of Anthropology and Chicana, Chicano, and Central American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is Executive Director of the Undocumented Migration Project, an organization committed to documenting and raising awareness about the violent social process of clandestine migration through a combination of anthropological research, education, arts initiatives, and public outreach. De León is Head Curator of Hostile Terrain 94, a global participatory exhibition focused on memorializing those who have lost their lives while migrating to the United States through the Sonoran Desert of Arizona that will take place in 130 locations on six continents through the fall of 2021.
Welcome to the Radical Zone Podcast, where we get updates on the current state of the world and how various communities are impacted from activists and organizers who are out there doing the work. The Radical Zone Podcast is housed under the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership. I know you’re probably wondering what the Arcus Center is. The Arcus Center for Social Justice leadership, also known as ACSJL is an initiative of Kalamazoo college whose mission is to develop and sustain leaders and human rights and social justice through education and capacity building. We envision a world where every person’s life is equally valued. The inherent dignity of all people is recognized. The opportunity to develop one’s full potential is available to every person and systematic discrimination and structural inequities have been eradicated. Listen to and engage in conversation with organizers and activists across the globe about social inequities that impact us all.
Hey you all, it’s Rhiki here. Thank you for tuning in to the radical zone. Joining me today is my co-host who was actually one of our students who works in the Arcus Center Jesse Herrera.
So we have the pleasure of bringing a very special guest Jason De Leon, to discuss the current issues around migration and immigration happening in our country today.
We’re so excited to welcome Jason De León. He is a professor of anthropology and Chicana, Chicano and Central American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is executive director of the Undocumented Migration Project, an organization committed to documenting and raising awareness about the violence, social processes of migration. Through a combination of research, education, art and public outreach. De León is a head creative of Hostile Terrain 94. A global participatory exhibition focused on those who have lost their lives while migrating to the United States through Sonoran desert of Arizona. Welcome, Jason.
Jason De León:
Thank you both for having me.
So Jason, I want to ask you, when did you become a radical? Or how did when you crossed that threshold of being a radical?
Jason De León:
It’s funny, I feel like for much of my academic career, I did not consider myself a radical, or someone who was thinking outside the box or expressing my opinion about certain political things or my rage. I think that I was definitely doing those things in other aspects of my life from a very early time. So I grew up all over the place I was a military brat. But I ended up going to a little bit of elementary school, junior high school and high school in Long Beach, California. I think it was growing up in Long Beach, when I really discovered my love for punk rock. And all of the things that punk rock represented. Especially the anti authority, anti racism, being a vocal opponent of injustices. And I gravitated towards music that was really doing those sorts of things, or saying those kinds of things.
And then I started playing that kind of music and expressing those same sentiments. I did that from a very early age. But I think when I began my career as an anthropologist, I wasn’t that interested in politics. And partly because I think I was taught that anthropology or archeology was supposed to be this apolitical endeavor. So I would say that for much of my college career, and through almost my more than half of my graduate career, I wasn’t really thinking about pressing social issues. And it wasn’t until I decided to make a shift from doing archeology of the distant past to thinking about contemporary migration issues, that I think I started to fuse my passion for social justice with research. But it’s funny when people ask me now, “Who are some of your biggest influences?”
And I think oftentimes, they expect me to rattle off a bunch of anthropologists. But I would say that probably my biggest influences are musicians and writers. And probably one of my earliest influences is the LA punk rock funk ska band called Fishbone. Who early I picked up on them when they were coming out in the late 80s, early 90s with basically t-shirts that just said fuck racism. And I am Immediately gravitated towards that.
And it’s only later on, two decades later that I think I really see how much a band like Fishbone has influenced all of the work that I do both in terms of its political tone, as well as eclecticism I think. My desire to blend different genres, put things into a melting pot, and then see what comes out on the other side. And so now I don’t know, I guess you could call me a full fledged radical now. But there were probably definitely moments in my career where I wasn’t thinking about myself in that, in that sense at all.
Yeah. So you touched on it a little bit. But I just want you to expand a little more on how you went from being a professor of anthropology and looking into archeology and research how that drew you into the work that you’re doing now?
Jason De León:
Sure. Well early on in my career as an undergraduate, I really wanted to be an archeologist. I was fascinated with the past. I was fascinated with ruins and with the whole process of archeology. And so I started doing it as an undergrad, and then went to graduate school started working in Mexico, on excavations. And it was during the course of many years of fieldwork in Mexico, where I ended up in these little tiny communities, these rural villages. Where oftentimes, I was working alongside working class women and men who were getting paid to dig ditches with archeologists. And who had these desires to migrate to the United States, or some of them had already tried and come back.
I ended up meeting a guy, probably my end of college for second year of graduate school. A guy named Victor Baldio in central Mexico in the state of Tlaxcala. He and I were about the same age, but had these radically different life experiences. And it was through his stories about trying to migrate to the US, almost dying in the Arizona desert, getting kidnapped by smugglers. It was through hearing all those kinds of stories, I really started to get inspired to think about a different research trajectory. It was people like Victor and others who started me thinking, do I really want to commit my life to an archeology of the distant past, or is there something that’s happening right now that I can be involved with? That would allow me to blend my interest in anthropology as well as my interest in raising awareness about global inequality.
Jesse, you also have done some work at the border. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Yeah, definitely. It was a world that I didn’t think I would love so much. I started off doing a lot of work with the border studies program. Specifically, it was a study away program that was available to me. It was really hard to go to, just because of all the technical stuff that my school has, but I was able to meet really great people around there. I was able to do the border watches that people do sometimes. I forgot where but it’s just an accountability process. The CBP officers, I was able to be a part of this report by this journalist, Todd Miller. He’s really famous in Tucson specifically. And he was tracking the line between how specific political officials get money from big corporations that profit off the border.
So he was just unveiling that I’m producing a lot more work on that. But that’s the report I was able to do. And then the border studies kicked off my work in this past summer. Which I work with Mariposas Sin Fronteras they are really great organization. I love them so much. They help queer and trans migrants specifically in detention centers. I was able to do detention center visits, and I was able to just help out with anything I could. They have a house that they built recently. Which is really great, and really awesome, because you just [inaudible 00:09:02] to come out of detention that’s usually a sponsor and housing.
So I was able to help out a little bit with that planning process. And it was heavy, I think most of the time, I’m pretty sure Jason knows that. Like all of the [inaudible 00:09:15] border isn’t really easy. And it’s really easy to slip in this hole, especially in the work you do. And trying to I give you not doing enough. You start to blame yourself instead. And it’s a good segue for you, Jason. I don’t know if… I know you wrote a book, really famous book, Land of Open Graves. It was really hard book to read. I read it while I was doing the work on the border and had to take a lot of breaks. And we want to know a little bit more about your book and how explores issues in immigration policy.
Jason De León:
Sure. Well thank you for reading the book. And I think it’s really amazing that you’ve been able to have these opportunities to go down and get involved in these issues. I know that for me, it was life changing. I think for a lot of people to go down and see these things up close. I don’t know how it wouldn’t be life changing unless you’re completely callous. So I think it is really important, especially for students. I wish that I had had more opportunities to get involved in that kind of stuff. I came to it fairly late in my career. I was already a professor when I started studying really migration. But I’ve tried very, very hard for the last 10 years to facilitate student engagement with these issues as much as possible. Because I know it can be so transformative and inspiring just to go down and be able to sit with people.
Hear their stories, witness what they are going through, and then take stock of yourself. Like what is it that I’m going to do now? Now that I’ve seen this stuff, can I ignore it? Or am I now committed to working towards these issues in some way, shape, or form. So I think it’s really amazing that you’ve had that opportunity. And I hope that more people can have that, especially as we’re moving forward now. And things have only gotten worse in the last five to four years. But in terms of the book, Land of Open Graves, it was a book that I had never intended to write. I had never intended to write a book in general. I was trained as an archeologist and really my thinking about… So for people who don’t know, when you become a professor, you move through three stages of promotion.
A junior person, you’re an assistant professor. You get tenure when you become an associate, and then you get promoted to full professor. And typically, each of those promotions, you put together your tenure file for the jump from assistant to associate. And for many archeologists, that file really just involves writing a lot of articles and then some grants. But for some anthropologists and especially socio cultural anthropologists, you typically are required to write a book. And I was not intending to write a book. Or hadn’t really been thinking about a book until University of Michigan said, “If you want to keep your job, you’re going to have to write a book.”
And up until that point, I was not very enthusiastic about academic writing. I’d actually hated writing for a long time, because I just felt it was a writing devoid of any feeling emotion or even just craft. I was never trained to write well, I was trained to write academically. Which I think is not the same as writing well, and I’m sure that students can agree that you’re oftentimes forced to read really painful academic writing. I mean, things that are not well written, that are not exciting. That really can take an interesting topic like anthropology or immigration and then suck the life out of it. Because it’s been translated for an audience that, I think, doesn’t always appreciate the craft of writing. So when I was forced to write a book, I was like man do I want to write a 100,000 word book that’s going to brutalize the reader?
Nobody wants to read 10 journal articles in a row? Are they going to want to read 10,000 words? And so I got to a point where I had to take stock and go, what kind of book do I want to write? Do I want to write a book that is just repeating the academic writing that I’ve been trying to do? Or is there something else that I can put out there that feels better, both to me and to the people that I’m writing about. And so Land of Open Graves, really it’s a book about immigration and about borders, and about anthropology. But I think at the end of the day, I’m most comfortable saying that it’s a book about people. It’s about these two guys that I met that I call Memo and Lucho who are trying to get across the US-Mexico border.
It’s about the life of a 31 year old mother of three from Ecuador, named Maricellas [Aguipuyas 00:13:47]. And it’s about a 15 year old kid from Ecuador named Jose Maria Tacuri. For me I wanted to write a book that was really about those people. So that someone reads the book and then the next time they hear a statistic about a deceased migrant or disappeared migrant or an undocumented person, they can maybe have a name and a face to attach to some of those stories. And so for me, that book was an attempt to be true to those stories. And to try to get people to feel for these folks whose stories fundamentally changed my life. And it affected me on such a deep level.
And I just wanted the reader to try to at least experience some of those things. Which includes tragedy, sorrow, but also these moments of joy that people can experience during extreme forms of trauma. So yeah, that book was my attempt to translate the anthropology into a way that would get people thinking about migration perhaps in a different way. Or at least make it more accessible to a wider audience.
Yeah, definitely. You said something just there that really resonated. When I was in the border cities program, the very first thing that we did is an orientation week. And we went to an [albergat 00:15:05] which is a migrant shelter for people who just couldn’t cross that day. And it was really intense. And my facilitator, the person I was with, he said that his name is Jeff is amazing person. He said that you get a gift from people while you’re in there. And you have to redeem that gift or make it up for your entire life after you experience it. It’s really hard I think. I don’t know if you know that, Jason. I’m pretty sure you know that just experiencing or just knowing these things and trying to do justice as much as you can. Because once you see it, you just can’t ignore it. It’s really hard.
Jason De Leon:
Yeah, I completely agree. I think when people share their story with you open up their lives to you, even if it’s just for a little bit. I think that there comes a lot of responsibility with that. And what is it that you’re going to do with it? And I think sometimes people will take those things, and they can be really exploitative about it and hey, I’m going to write a story about it. And that’s the end of it. And I think there’s other people who maybe they’re going write a story about it, but also it becomes this thing that you try to take in yourself as well. You never forget, and it always changes your outlook on all kinds of things.
And I think for all the years that I’ve worked with people who are in the process of migrating, I’ve always been very, very grateful for the openness that people have been willing to share. But also just the inspiration that I think that people can give one. You come in from the outside, and it’s so just oftentimes really difficult to see these things that are so emotionally challenging. And I just think you go and have those experiences, and then you… For me, I don’t ever want to lose the importance of those things.
And so I always want to find ways to, I don’t know if I want to say internalize. But at least carry it with me. And I hope that those experiences make me a better person in whatever situations I find myself in after that. But truly, I think that I’ve long been inspired by people who were migrating because I know how much they struggle. I know oftentimes that they are working to improve their life, the lives of the ones that they love. And the fact that they’re able to do it with so much optimism sometimes for me is really an amazing thing to see.
Definitely, I was once really caught off guard, one time I was in an Operation Streamline court. They had just reinstated the chains that they use for migrants to get processed. And I saw someone laugh. Multiple people laugh during… And I got caught off guard, and thankfully had some great people around me and saying yeah, people can have joy during… It’s their way of processing. And then they should be able to do what they want. And it’s amazing how much people are [inaudible 00:18:05]. I think so I really think people are [inaudible 00:18:07] When they get to these things.
Jason De León:
Yeah, I’m always skeptical of any book about migration, that doesn’t have humor in it. Because I’ve laughed my ass off in some of the darkest times. Because you know people… And I’ll tell you, you cannot do this without humor. And the guy that I call Memo, he would always give me so much shit when I would get down and out about some of the stuff. And he would say you’re never going make it across this desert, with an attitude like that. You got to find ways to maintain that joy. And life is good, even when it’s beating you down. You still have to be able to find ways to survive it. And that’s why I say that migrants can be so inspiring, because I don’t know if I will be able to do that in that same situation. And so I’m in awe oftentimes of people’s outlook.
So in your book, you talked about the prevention through deterrence policy. Can you speak a little bit about that and how people were actually using the desert as a scapegoat to justify this policy and the funneling of migrants through the desert.
Jason De León:
Sure. So prevention through deterrence is a border policy that was officially put into place in 1994. And it’s a pretty simple idea. It’s basically the recognition that the US Mexico border, is a landscape that much of it is really rugged, depopulated, sparse and it can be used as a natural barrier to movement. And it really came out of… It’s a little bit of a complicated story, but I think an interesting one. There had been some high school students at a place called Bowie High School in El Paso, Texas that’s right on the US Mexico border in the 90s. And most of those students are Latino, Latinx students. And Border Patrol was coming onto campus during school hours, because they were chasing migrants who were hopping the fence and running into the US.
And you had all of these students on campus who were getting harassed by the Border Patrol. Because they couldn’t tell the difference between who was documented and who was undocumented. So all of these brown students started to mobilize and tried to sue the federal government for harassment. And there’s a really good book called blockading the border. That’s all about the Bowie High School issue. But long story short, Bowie High School sues the federal government. And the response from the federal government, form the Border Patrol is they said, “Okay, we’re going to try to make it impossible for migrants to cross the border, in downtown El Paso. And near places Bowie High School. We’re going put all these agents on the ground. We’ll put new motion sensors, helicopters, all that kind of stuff. And instead of hopping the fence in downtown El Paso, someone would have to walk five or six miles east or west to the outskirts of town. And then they can hop the fence and then and then double back over.”
So it doesn’t actually, this heightened enforcement, doesn’t stop migration. It just redirects it to other places. Pete Wilson in California in the 90s is governor. And he’s getting a lot of pushback from his constituents in places like San Diego. Who were saying look how visible these border crossers are. If you go down to downtown San Ysidro, the San Ysidro port of entry at dusk, you would see hundreds of people amassing at the fence, waiting for the sun to go down. And they would hop the fence and then run into town and try to hide amongst the local population.
So Border Patrol there starts doing the same thing they did in El Paso, they put all these agents on the ground, and it becomes impossible to hop the fence in downtown San Diego. So now suddenly, these people are going to the outskirts of town and then hopping the fence and doubling back in. They realize if they do this, they can push people out into the middle of nowhere. Where they have no place to hide. And also, if they are going to get through, they’re going to have to walk dozens of miles through mountains across desert cross these really difficult landscapes. So they start to implement this officially in 1994. And the idea was that if they do this, along these urban zones along the US Mexico border, people can be forced out into these rugged zones, especially places like Sonora desert of Arizona.
Which at the time the Border Patrol refers to as quote “hostile terrain”. And so the idea was if you have to walk across a desert, where there’s no water, there’s just mountains and venomous animals. And you have to walk for three or four days and it’s 110 degrees outside. And you can die of dehydration or break your ankle in the middle of nowhere, that all of those things will be a deterrent to the movement of people. Of course it doesn’t, people just start doing it. And you go from having, 10,000, 15,000 apprehensions in southern Arizona in any one given year. To suddenly you’ve got hundreds of thousands of apprehensions through the desert because people are being funneled out there.
And the border Patrol’s logic is, it’s much easier to catch a migrant if they’re exhausted and dehydrated, or if they’re dead. And that has been the dominant paradigm for border security for decades. We still do it today. We’ve been funneling people now away from Arizona into New Mexico and parts of South Texas thousands of people have died because of this policy. And everybody knew in the beginning that this was going to lead to a lot of injury and death. You can look at the federal documents that they clearly laid out. They say if we put this policy in place, one expected outcome will be a rise in migrant death. And of course we went from averaging 25 to 50 deaths across the entire US Mexico border annually. To suddenly two or 300 deaths in Arizona alone.
And so this policy, prevention through deterrence has killed thousands of people. And unfortunately, it’s also led to the disappearance of a lot of folks out in these really remote locations where their bodies will never be recovered. Because they’re out there for so long they get destroyed by animals in the natural environment. And there’s nobody actively looking for all of the missing. And so this policy is probably… If we were to talk about a border wall, and the brutality caused by border infrastructure. Prevention through deterrence in places like the Sonoran desert are the number one victimizers of migrants.
But it’s also done in a very savvy way because the Border Patrol can say, “Well, if you die of dehydration in the desert, it’s not the border Patrol’s fault. It’s your own fault for being out there.” Even though they’ve actively created a scenario where they know that people are going to try to cross with these places and so they’re they’re encouraging that. And then they’re able to say at the end of the day well it’s not our fault. These people did it to themselves, or people are disappearing, and then there’s no evidence. The desert is destroying these bodies and then the Border Patrol can have complete deniability about this whole thing.
Yeah. So you’re curating right now and art piece based on this very policy called hostile terrain 94. Can you tell us a little bit more about that project and why you chose to do it in art form?
Jason De León:
Yeah. So hostile terrain 94 is a global participatory installation that was supposed to open three weeks ago. But clearly, that’s not happening. And then we’re supposed to then launch in 130 plus locations on six continents, through the end of the year. The idea behind hostile terrain 94, is trying to raise awareness about the number of people who have died and disappeared in the Sonoran Desert. And it came out of an art exhibition that we had done in the fall of 2018. It’s called Mecca, the main… Institute for contemporary art in Portland, Maine, had a big show that we were in. We had a full room of different elements, photography, video artifacts, various things that were art pieces that were translating anthropological data for a public audience.
And one of the things that we did with that particular show is we created a wall graphic that plotted out 3200 migrant deaths in on a map of Arizona. And that had been printed out in vinyl. So it was 3200 red vinyl dots on a wall, representing each of the deceased. And I thought that that was going to be a really impactful way to represent these deaths. And it ended up, once we did it and put it up on a wall, it kind of felt flat. And I felt it wasn’t really conveying the gravity of the situation. And so we had a follow up show that happened at the Phillips Art Gallery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania at Franklin and Marshall College that was coming up six months later.
And so we decided, okay, let’s replace this wall graphic with a map of Arizona. And we’ll make custom toe tags. And we will hand write out the names and all the information for the dead. And we’ll color code the tags will do Manila for people who were named and orange for the unidentified. And we’ll mount those tags in the exact location of where those bodies were found. So we started doing that. And I had students writing tags when I was teaching at the University of Michigan. And in the middle of all that, the students started coming to me and saying, hey, this is really difficult to do emotionally, it’s hard to sit down for an hour and write out the names of the dead. And the condition their bodies were found in the students were we’re really having a hard time with it.
And I got to thinking, what if we came up with an exhibition where, instead of us installing a map with these handwritten toe tags, we asked people to collaborate with us and build these maps themselves. So that they could directly engage with these people on a real level. Because I think there’s something important that happens when you sit down, and you write out the names of the dead, I truly do. I think it connects you to that issue in a different way than just reading about it or seeing it on a wall. I think when you commit your time and energy to writing up those names, you connect to it in a different way.
And so it happened in the middle of planning for this show at Franklin and Marshall. I had this dream about what if we were to do an exhibition around migrant death, but we made it really collaborative. So we would organize people into different places, we would send them a kit, and they would build it themselves. We would make it really cheap to do. So like 1500 bucks for supplies and logistical support. Anybody can host it. You don’t have to be a gallery, you can be just a student group or a church or just an average person who wants to put up this show. We’re happy to support you will subsidize it if we can. And what are we tried to do that in 94 locations around the globe.
And at that point, 94 was a reference to the year that the policy prevention through deterrence it started. I built a little website in January of 2019. I put out some calls for collaborators on Twitter and Facebook. And immediately we had 50 or 60 people who were signed up. And so we got to the 94 mark pretty quickly. We pushed it to 150. And realized that we logistically we couldn’t do more than that our team is too small. And so now we’re hovering around 130. We’ll probably get back up to 150 into next year because of delays from COVID and people not to wanting to sign on. But the idea is that these shows will pop up all over the place in all these different locations.
And we really want It to be collaborative. So people come to us and say, we want to build this wall. We want to memorialize the dead and build this exhibition. But we also want to connect it to our own communities. And so we’ve given our partners, carte blanche to say, look, you tell us what you think would be the best things to add to this to compliment it? Is it other art pieces? Is it workshops? Is it musical performances? Is it lectures about how immigration is impacting your own local community? And it’s been really great. I mean for me, the fact that this is a really accessible exhibition and collaborative is really amazing.
Because it can be hard sometimes to be in an art space where it can feel very elitist. Even if it’s in a small gallery on campus, that’s not always necessarily a safe space for a lot of people. And so we really worked hard with our partners to try to be as inclusive as possible. We have a show launching virtually July 17th in Santa Fe, New Mexico. And they’re going to open up the first gallery, July 10th in Santa Fe, but people will not be filling out toe tags, it’ll already be built. But they will be using social distancing measures for people to go and visit the gallery. But we anticipate public… In the late fall, early 2021, these shows will start popping up all across the US, Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa.
And yeah, we’re just really, really excited to see what people come up with and including the folks at Arcus. It’s been a real pleasure just brainstorming with so many different student groups and faculty. And artists who are trying to find ways to both amplify the message of the exhibition, while at the same time empowering local communities to get involved and feel like they’ve taken some ownership of this exhibition.
Yeah, there’s a component of the specific collaborative component of the hostile terrain project. That when specifically when you write the names, for me was a very intense process. And just seeing them in your mind it was… Especially for me I have friends who have last names. Who have those specific names. And it really did make me connect to it. And really put a name to the violence that is happening at the border. And I know you’ve done a lot of work down there. And I just want to ask this question of specifically who is making the journey across the border? And what are the reasons for?
Jason De León:
Well it’s evolved over time. 10 years ago, the bulk of people who were crossing were people coming from Mexico. It was primarily men, young men, people coming for the first time or people who are getting deported by Obama who deported a lot of people. In probably the last five or six years, there’s been a major shift now to, you still have folks coming from Mexico, but now different parts of Mexico. Indigenous communities in Mexico that are struggling with cartel violence and poverty. But also a high number of people coming from Central America. Particularly the Golden Triangle so Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. You got a lot of young people now, both male and female, fleeing those places, because they’re just unsafe.
You’ve got lots of unaccompanied minors coming now as well. But then now, you’ve also got people coming from other places. Haiti, the Dominican Republic, India, Africa, you’ve got all these migrants who are coming up from South America, crossing all of Mexico, and then trying to get across, either through Arizona, through Texas, through California. But many of them are coming because of poverty. But they’re also coming because of political instability. Because of violence, because of the impacts of climate change. So droughts, flooding, increased intensity of hurricanes. You’ve got people who are migrating now, for reasons that we weren’t thinking about it all 10, 20 years ago.
And it’s a much more diverse pool now. And it’s not uncommon to see entire family groups to see women traveling with children, to see children traveling alone. And I think that’s for me one of the reasons why this issue is so crucial right now. Because it’s not going away anytime soon, and it only appears to just be getting worse and worse.
Yeah, like Jesse, I filled out a couple of the toe tags for the hostile terrain project. And it was a lot and especially because even if they didn’t have names, so some of them say unidentified. They were these bodies and it shows a description of their bodies. And I think the first two that I filled out one was an older woman. And I don’t know why I paid attention to the latitude. But the very next one was this very young child. And it was the latitude and longitude was the exact same. And it clicked for me this was a mother and her child. And I don’t know, that moment just solidify how real this issue is. I think that there’s a certain narrative that’s being passed around in America that is so lacking the human element. And this project really kind of brung that human element back into this issue.
I feel like when we talk about it, we talk about it as this big conceptual idea. That’s just like, it only exists within inside the realm of politics. And it’s like no these are actual people. And these things are happening to them. So to do the toe tags, and then to also read your book and the story about how Javier in the book. That illuminated what that experience across the desert is like. Just really opened my eyes to how real this issue really is.
Jason De León:
I think there’s something really powerful that can happen when we think about one of these global issues. These huge structural issues, but then we can break it down, right? And then if we just have one name. I think that one name can be so powerful. I mean George Floyd right now. I mean just one name, one person. If we can understand the tragedy and the sorrow of one person’s loss of life? For me, I think that that’s more powerful than statistics, than these numbers. That if I can’t connect to an individual I think it can be really hard then to understand, okay well, this happens to thousands of people. I think that’s why these movements say their names.
I mean, I think that’s all of these movements now to get people to understand that these structural issues. The violence created by these different systems, impacts millions of people. But we need to start on the ground level, and just connect with one life. And understand that, that one life and that loss of life impacts entire communities. And if you can connect with that one person, and then start to slowly take a step back and go my god all of these names now. How many people have been devastated by these different forms of violence?
For me that’s what sticks with me. And so this project it started out going in the opposite direction. I wanted to show the graph that the scale of this whole thing, but then realizing that didn’t work. And it really only worked when you started small. With one person which is not a small thing. One every life is important. And if we can focus in on these lives that are disproportionately impacted by violence and show you that one person, then maybe you can start to understand the real gravity of this whole situation.
Yeah, I feel like we’ve been so desensitized by all the things that happen in our society. That we forget… I don’t know, I feel like we’re so used to it that we forget that these are actual people. And the emotion just isn’t there. But when you sit down and you’re forced to, not forced, but you’re paying attention to these toll tags, and you’re actually writing information about somebody and their body and their life. It just re-sensitize you to… I don’t know how to explain it, but yeah, it just makes it real.
Jason De León:
Yeah, I completely agree. I think that we live in this era where… I remember after Rodney King, I was in LA at the time. And everybody thought finally this… Finally, you’ll believe us that people of color are brutalized by the police. And it’s on video, and everyone thought that that was going to be a game changer. And of course, it didn’t. And I never thought that I would live in an era where you could just turn on the television and see a black person killed by the police that someone had filmed, on a weekly if not daily basis, and nothing would come from that. That we got to a point fairly recently, where I just felt like people were becoming desensitized to these police killings.
And I don’t know if you guys have seen the recent Dave Chappelle show. I don’t even know what to call it. But basically it’s a 20, 27, 28 minute long discussion about police brutality. And he really, I think he talks about George Floyd in this very personal way that reminds you that you cannot be desensitized to these things. And that and this one person’s life is so important, and has been cut short in this brutal way. And we need to start with that person’s humanity first and not these other scales that were at some times I think, really don’t allow us to connect. And I think we’re desensitized to immigration issues. We’re desensitized to police brutality.
And we think about all the things that the Trump administration has done to immigrants. Putting babies in cages, tear gassing moms with their kids at the US Mexico border. Separating kids from their families. I mean, we’re just flooded with all these different horror shows. But they’re happening at such a grand scale, sometimes that it’s really hard to get a sense of It’s worse than you actually think it is. Because it’s terrible to look at it when you see it at a higher level of like it’s happening to thousands of people.
But I think for me, it’s even more devastating when I start with that one person. Try to understand their position, and their experiences, and then slowly move out and then go oh my god I can’t believe that we’re now orders of magnitude. We’re multiplying this is trauma. But we’re living in such a fast paced world right now. With these media cycles where I think, it oftentimes can be hard to stay connected to these individual lives which is really unfortunate. But that’s partly because there are so many lives being affected by this right now. And we don’t really know how to talk about these things.
One thing that comes up specifically a name when you said that just one life would be… In Tucson, this boy got killed. His name is Jose Antonio, by CBP officer. And his name is always everywhere, just trying to get justice for it. And I was there during the court decision for whether or not the CBP officer was going to be guilty or not. And I saw the boy’s mother’s reaction after they found out. And she’s like I’m not going to give up. I’m not going to give up getting justice for my son.
And you really try to find this idea… Like you see this idea that the government, not the government. But just people in political positions don’t really care. And there’s no oversight. I think we’ve been seeing that a lot now for COVID. And just like the entire… There’s just no oversight, no accountability, on the specific ways that the government implement certain measures. And I’m wondering, how the government has ignored the issues of COVID in relation to migration. How is it impacting people in general?
Jason De León:
Well, I think the federal government is making COVID much worse in a lot of places. I mean, we know that migrants are in detention right now, in unsafe conditions. I’m not expecting these private prisons, with very little oversight. That are known for all kinds of human rights abuses, sexual assault, violence, extortion. We know that’s been happening for a long time. And so in those places, I don’t imagine that they’re following safety protocols to keep people protected from COVID-19. And so we’re exposing migrants to other to this medical issue. And then we’re deporting them in the middle of the night, back to these home communities. Where they are bringing that these diseases now back to these places that where transmission rates, which I’m sure will be high.
And where there’s little to no medical care. I think that we are doing all kinds of… Our actions here in the United States, they’ve always been devastating to places like Central America. And COVID-19 I think it’s just one more example of governmental indifference or even maliciousness towards these communities. Because we’re sending people back full well, knowing that they have been exposed to COVID-19 taking no precautions to protect anybody. So I think we’re only starting now to see the ramifications of things like deportation, as has been happening under COVID.
I’ll never forget this one experience where we were able to go through a detention center. And we were obviously being guarded by two high officials. And I forgot which one it was, I think it was Florence I was able to tour. And what got me afterwards was, they were gaslighting me the whole time during the tour. They were convincing me of how good the conditions were. It was almost at the point where I was trying to convince me. And afterwards I thought to myself is like why are they so good at this? Why are they so good at convincing people and justifying. Like the accountability and not even thinking about these people? It was wild, the kind of logic that happened there. And I can only imagine it’s worse now during COVID.
Jason De León:
Well, they’re invested in keeping the system rolling. And I think people who are part of it have to justify to themselves as well. They believe oftentimes their own nonsense.
So we talked about the detention centers, and how the US is affecting Mexico and Central America as far as COVID. Are there any other US policies you want to bring awareness to that are affecting Mexico and Central America? And specifically, I want to talk about deportation flights?
Jason De León:
Sure. Well probably one of the biggest things that’s been a game changer for Mexico. Is that starting in 2014, under Obama we started putting all this political pressure on Mexico to stop Central Americans from crossing their country. And this had been in response to all the kids who were showing up at the US Mexico border in the summer of 2014. So Mexico launched a program called [Foreign language 00:46:26].
Which was an attempt to slow down, to arrest and deport Central American migrants back to their home countries. And that was being supported by the United States government, was being partially funded. We were training agents on the ground in Mexico and in Central America to do this kind of stuff. And Trump has only made this worse. But we’ve been basically putting pressure on Mexico to act like a second border. To deal with our immigration issue. And it’s just made things so much more horrific for migrants who are attempting to get across Mexico.
In terms of the continuing policies, how do you think the upcoming elections will affect the immigration and migration right now? And specifically policies too.
Jason De León:
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I mean, are people angry enough to come out in the fall and vote? Are they going to be angry enough to take politicians to task about these things? It’s unclear. I think four years ago, my thinking was it’s going to get really bad under Trump, and how bad will it have to get before people actually want to make real structural change? I don’t want to see it get any worse than it already is. But I don’t know if we’re at a point now, where more people are going to be committed to voting politicians out. And then committed to holding the ones that we vote in accountable to these issues.
I have to be optimistic. I think that your generation, this is your moment. And I’ve been really inspired by the way people have been mobilizing to deal with these issues. I just hope that it carries over into the fall. But also of course, the big worry is about the undermining of democracy by this current administration. And so will there be oversight? And will we be able to vote in fair elections?
So what should people know or be aware of right now? Moving forward, at least with the upcoming election, what things do you want to lift up?
Jason De León:
I think right now just getting educated. And getting educated beyond the current news cycle. I think you can only learn so much from reading the newspaper about immigration. I think if you want to understand these issues, you’re going to have to dig deeper. And of course, you can support organizations that are working on these issues. But just because you give 50 bucks to an organization, I don’t think that that should clear your conscience. And it’s kind of like what the Black Lives Matter stuff. You went to one protest, okay, I’m real proud of you. Now, what are you actually going to do? Are you going to be committed to anti racism? Not committed to like diversity training, or whatever nonsense that we throw around these days to make ourselves feel better? But I don’t want to hear like I’m not racist. I want to hear you say I am anti racist, and I’m actively working to deal with these issues.
And it’s the same thing with immigration, get involved in your community support. You don’t have to go to the US Mexico border to work on these issues. Immigrants are in your backyard and you can support them in all kinds of ways. But I think a crucial part of that is to take a deeper dive into the educational stuff so that you can understand the long history of this and it doesn’t start under Trump. It goes so much farther back. And having that knowledge, I think can be really empowering. And can shape your life in all kinds of ways. Not just who you vote for, but where you buy your food from, how you have conversations with your family members about these issues. All of those things I think, can spark real change. But you have to educate yourself first in order to do that.
And it really never stops. Especially now when people go to protests. People have been saying solidarity isn’t a trend. Isn’t something that you stop after big events happen? It’s not something that… It’s a continuing process. And I like it when you say educating yourself. Because educating yourself never stops either. I think even with the work I’ve done, it’s just you learn so much more every single day, if you’re invested into it. And we wanted to know Jason, now that you have all these projects. What are you working on right now? Is there anything else that other than hostile terrain that you’ve been working on?
Jason De León:
Yeah, I’ve just started writing a new book on human smuggling. And so it’s a book called Soldiers and Kings. And it is about Honduran smugglers. Largely young men from Honduras who are transporting migrants across the length of Mexico. And so the book focuses on the daily lives of those men and a few women. How does someone become a smuggler? What is your daily life like? And how is smuggling connected up to things global political economy, US border enforcement practices. But it’s really this in depth look at the lives of these folks that are very difficult, oftentimes end very violently. Sort of my attempt to shine a light on this aspect of migration that I think we oftentimes don’t hear much about.
Or we hear very one sided sorts of stories about who smugglers are and what and what they do. So I’ve just started writing basically. And I will probably spend the next… Sorry, if you hear my cat meowing. He’s got an opinion about the book. So I’ve just started writing and probably hostile terrain is ongoing. We’ve got another project on detention centers that we’re just getting started with now. But I’ll be mostly working on this book for the next year and a half to two years.
Cool. Well, that’s all we have for today. So thank you so much, Jason for joining us.
Jason De León:
My pleasure. Thank you all so much. This is great. And I hope that everyone is staying healthy and happy and relatively sane during these difficult times. But for me, it’s really helpful just to be able to talk to somebody about something.
And also thank you Jesse, for joining us. Jesse recently graduated, so they’re technically not a student anymore. Doing this out of the kindness of their heart.
Jason De León:
Yeah, thankfully, I made it somehow.
So remember everyone to continue to always educate yourself. This is not a trend. This is a lifelong journey. If you want to learn more about Jason’s work, please visit the Undocumented Migration Project. And also be on the lookout for our Hostile Terrain 94 project coming in 2021. And join us next time on the Radical Zone. Thank you all for tuning in to the Radical Zone podcast where we center radical thinkers and their ideas. See you next time.
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