'Living, Breathing Archaeology' In The Arizona Desert Every year, thousands of migrants cross the border from Mexico to Arizona, leaving behind artifacts from their journeys. Some of the items end up in trash bags, others in a museum. Still others end up in the morgue.

'Living, Breathing Archaeology' In The Arizona Desert

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If you're just joining us, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan.

Every year, thousands of people try to cross the border between Mexico and the United States. If you walk through the desert in Southern Arizona, you can find evidence of their trip - the things they leave behind. To some people, it is simply trash to be cleaned up. But to others, it is a window into a perilous voyage. NPR's Lauren Silverman went to the southwest border and has this story.

LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: It's a typical day in Arizona for Jason De Leon. He's lacing up his boots, strapping on his backpack, and heading into the desert.

JASON DE LEON: We'll bring some water, some bags in case we need to take some stuff with us, a little bit of food, a compass.

SILVERMAN: Jason is an anthropologist at the University of Michigan. And since 2008, he's spent his summers here - photographing and collecting discarded artifacts for a project. He wants to preserve the objects and possibly return them to the families they belong to.

LEON: And you can just kind of make out a blue backpack and maybe a piece of clothing that's laying on the ground.

SILVERMAN: He rummages through one of the bags.

LEON: Take a look and see what's inside. There's some foot powder, matches from Chiapas, some cortisone cream, some cigarettes, there are two black water bottles under that tree.

SILVERMAN: For him, these scraps are important. This place is important. He says one day, it will be seen as an Ellis Island. Off the trail, we spot at least 50 backpacks and as many water bottles scattered among the cacti. A bright green camouflage bag stands out.

Now, why would someone leave a nice backpack like that behind?

LEON: You've gotten this far, you're probably fairly dirty, you've sweated a lot, you've been in the desert for a long time and you get picked up. And so what you want to do is try to not look like you've just come through the desert. So you want to get rid of all the stuff that sort of marks you as an undocumented migrant.

SILVERMAN: Like extra jackets or black plastic sheeting used to make tents in the rain.

LEON: We've got some backpacks that are full of some things, electrolyte bottles, a packet of refried beans. It still has beans in them, typically animals will get to that pretty rapidly. So the fact that there's still food in there tells me that's pretty recent.

SILVERMAN: We find caffeine pills migrants take to stay awake and cloves of garlic. Jason explains.

LEON: And garlic is often rubbed on clothes as a way to keep away animals. I'm not quite sure if it works, but it definitely is a very common strategy.

SILVERMAN: Jason reaches into the front pocket of what looks like a high school student's backpack. He pulls out a roll of toilet paper, then...

LEON: And a little ring.

SILVERMAN: He brushes it off with his shirt.

LEON: This little tiny ring with a half moon and a star. You know, obviously, I don't think this person wanted to leave this behind.

SILVERMAN: And what they do leave behind ranges from the sentimental to the ridiculous.

LEON: Blow-dryer, high-heeled shoes. A lot of times, people either don't know what to expect so they don't really know how to pack for it, or they want to bring things that are, you know, their favorite things. I found a set of hair curlers once, like, with a charger on it.

SILVERMAN: Jason knows most people don't consider these things sacred. Most people would put them in a garbage bag long before a shelf on any museum.

MELISSA HAYES: My name is Melissa Hayes. I'm the project manager for the Arizona border trash project with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.

SILVERMAN: Melissa Hayes organizes volunteers to clean up this stuff.

HAYES: It can affect waterways, pose a risk for wildlife and cattle, pose a threat for potential wildfires and then also blight to the landscape.

SILVERMAN: On a recent cleanup, Hayes says volunteers collected around 10,000 pounds of trash north of Nogales, Arizona. It's estimated half of what they bagged was left by migrants.

HAYES: A group will clean it up, and then you'll see a recurrence of the trash in the same area. Sometimes it'll be in different areas, and a lot of the time, the areas won't even be accessible easily, which poses a challenge as well.

SILVERMAN: Most of what volunteers collect is typical trash, but sometimes, among the garbage, there are human remains. It's a reminder of just how dangerous this trip is. In the '90s, a few dozen border crossing deaths were reported here every year. But after 2000, that number jumped to an average of a couple hundred deaths, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Tougher border enforcement in states like California pushed migrants east, into rougher and more remote areas. And even as the weak economy has led to a decrease in the number of people crossing the border illegally, the rate of border deaths keeps going up. The bodies found in this part of the desert end up here, at the office of the medical examiner in Tucson.

GREGORY HESS: This is our outdoor cooler, what's making the noise in the background.

SILVERMAN: Gregory Hess, the chief medical examiner in Tucson, is standing in front a huge refrigerator with racks and sliding shelves filled with body bags.

HESS: It holds 142 remains. And 2005 was our first big year for migrant deaths. That's the first year we kind of ran out of space.

SILVERMAN: So the office doubled storage and hired a full-time forensic anthropologist to handle identifying human remains. Decomposition happens fast in the desert, and that makes getting remains back to the right families tough. The office's forensic anthropologist tries to piece together any bones or artifacts that might help identify the individual. Sometimes, they get lucky and find a scrap of paper with a number or even a name. Medical Examiner Greg Hess leads me to a small room lined with metal lockers.


HESS: This is case 1,056 from 2010. It's a John Doe. And there is, you know, some paper with some numbers and foreign currency, kind of a distinctive little wallet-type thing.

SILVERMAN: When they can't figure out who a person is, the body is cremated and personal items are coded and stored away. Jason De Leon worries those items will be forgotten, or even disappear, which is why he comes to this desert every year, rushing to collect what's left. Back in the desert, Jason walks toward a bag that's been bleached white on one side by the sun. Then he stops.

LEON: I mean, this is a little, tiny shoe. It's a worn out, sun-dried child's shoe. But, you know, somebody wore this across the desert, and we're far from the border. So someone has gone - has walked a long distance, a very small person.

SILVERMAN: That little shoe likely belongs to one of the estimated half a million migrants who attempted to cross the border here this year. Some make it to the United States, some are deported, almost all of them leave something behind. Lauren Silverman, NPR News.

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