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Along one wall of an otherwise unassuming classroom in Munroe Hall are thousands of off-white and orange tags, each containing the name, age, cause of death and location found of undocumented migrants attempting to cross the Mexico border into the United States.
Georgina Ramsey, professor of anthropology at the university, began this project four years prior and is now able to see the fruits of her labor. Involved students and faculty spent Nov. 1 hanging upwards of 3,000 hand-written body identification markers – otherwise known as toe-tags – for the installation called “Hostile Terrain 94” in Room 103.
“The southern border is extremely politicized,” Ramsey said. “That’s not what this is about, necessarily. It’s about recognizing that there is a significant amount of violence at the border that we don’t get to address or acknowledge in public. And that’s a starting point to humanize the people who are getting politicized.”
This year, the number of people arriving at the border is the largest ever recorded. An estimated 8,000 people per day are coming to seek asylum, with more than 640 human remains found between October 2022 and August 2023.
Orange tags in the installation represent unidentified persons, while off-white ones are for those who were identified. The cause of death for each varies, with many having died from environmental exposure and others from drowning, blunt force trauma, gunshots, medical conditions and more.
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To acquire assistance in filling out the thousands of toe-tags, Ramsey and her two student team members have been attending classes as guest speakers.
During a political science class on Oct. 31 – the final class they reached out to before the debut of the installation the following day – students helped fill out toe-tags for recovered bodies from fetal age up to 56 years old.
Fetus tags, Ramsey explained, are likely a result of sexual assault, which is a regular occurrence on the journey through South America. Contraceptives are a frequent find for archeologists who study just south of the border since there is an “expectation that [rape] is a potentiality” when one begins the trek, according to Ramsey.
“It’s a morbid task,” Ramsey said to the class. “We’re trying to make what’s very, very violent visible. We’re not trying to glorify this process.”
The markers were arranged on the wall in the approximate latitude and longitude which they were found so viewers can see each body in relation to another.
“I think that this is important because it represents just the facts literally,” Peter Benson, Department of Anthropology chair, said. “So you can just visualize the landscape and the people who were there.”
Ramsey explained that approximately 98% of those attempting to cross the border “get through eventually.” This project, which documents only the unsuccessful attempts, is representative of 2% of individuals.
The deaths of so many are directly linked to U.S. migration policy, according to Ramsey.
“The government knew fairly early on that the effect of their policy would be that more migrants would die crossing the border,” Ramsey said. “So it wasn’t an accident. It wasn’t an unintended consequence. It was something that was strategically part of the policy. You can’t have deterrence without some kind of violence.”
When one student asked why unauthorized immigrants would try to come back, given that crossing is risky and the economic situation is improving below the border, Ramsey said that many have built lives in America, complete with families, homes and jobs.
Most of the asylum-seekers who cross the border have crossed before and are attempting to re-enter after being deported, she said. She recalled that the highest number of deportations were under the Obama administration in 2013. 10 years later, many are still trying to return.
“Hostile Terrain 94” being finished near the holidays is well-timed, Ramsey said. During Thanksgiving and winter break, many go home and see relatives, so Ramsey encourages students to start a conversation with those in their family unaware of the degree of brutality at the border.
“It’s been a lot of work,” Sara Grelak, senior anthropology major and one of Ramsey’s assistants on the project, said. “So now I kind of get to breathe and let other people [hang the tags], and so that’s good.”
The U.S. is not the only nation facing similar migration law issues and violence. Ramsey pointed out that the problem is global. For instance, Australia, where she was born, has mandatory detention centers where immigrants stay until they receive a visa or are removed from the country.
The exhibit is not the first of its kind. It is based on the work of Jason De Leon, a renowned anthropology researcher and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“Given that Georgina and the students and other faculty certainly have been working on it for several years, the fact that it’s up there and that we can have it be part of this center – where we teach and we have our meetings – is really great,” Benson said. “I hope it can be up here for years.”
By Tabitha Reeves