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Migrant Artifacts: Magic and Loss in the Sonoran Desert
by Michael Hyatt


This is a contemporary story - of millions of poor people forced by global economic crisis to cross borders illegally. Yet it is also a story of individuals - a man who left his plastic sandals behind in the desert, a woman for whom a backpack became too heavy so she dropped it in the sand, a little girl whose pretty dress hangs ghostly white from the limb of a mesquite tree. These are people whose names we will never know, whose faces we may never see, but whose lives are important to all of us.

With my camera, I have traced these lives along the migrant trail in the Sonoran Desert, from the dusty Mexican town of Altar to the Ironwood National Forest in Arizona - the most perilous crossing of the 1,951 miles of border between Mexico and the United States. One of the most inhospitable regions on earth, especially during the summer months, the area was dubbed "The Devil's Highway" during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. Many a fortune-seeker, west bound for California, died of thirst along the way. Now their modern counterparts, mostly young men and women seeking only decent paying jobs, face the same hazards - and, in recent years, have died by the thousands crossing north through this region.

The roots of this human crisis are traceable to the instability of Latin American economies and the U.S. job market's demand for cheap labor. While the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement opened up cross-border commerce, a negative effect of the treaty allows subsidized U.S.-grown staples to undercut Mexican produce prices, depriving family farmers of a market for their crops. So they abandon their own land and come to work ours.

U.S. border policies aggravate the situation by overloading legal systems and imperiling those migrants attempting to circumvent heavily patrolled border areas. Since 1994, Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego has intensified Border Patrol activity, and the construction of many miles of fencing on the California side of the U.S./Mexico border has funneled migrants into harsh desert terrain along the Arizona border. Deceived by smugglers and preyed upon by bandits who rob, rape and murder, the migrants often pay a high price to enter the U.S. However, it's the extreme temperatures and absence of water that claims most lives.

U.S. citizens, appalled by the high annual death rate of migrants, have launched humanitarian efforts to alleviate the crisis. One of the deadliest stretches of desert west of Tucson is home to the Tohono O'Odham Nation, whose tribal policy prohibits humanitarian groups from providing assistance. Tribal member Mike Wilson distributes water anyway. In other areas along the Arizona border and as far north as Ironwood National Forest, government permits allow members of Humane Borders to deploy water stations. In addition, volunteer doctors, nurses, and Spanish-speakers with Samaritans and No More Deaths conduct desert patrols to save lives.

But these are emergency measures, a bandaid for a problem that requires political solutions on both sides of the border. Many activist groups advocate immigration reforms that would match the number of worker visas with the number of available jobs, legalize millions of immigrants and their families living in the shadows, and reduce corruption on the border and exploitation in the workplace. The debates in Congress and in Mexico City go on.

Meanwhile, big cities and small towns across the U.S. are being transformed by the influx of immigrants from south of the border. It is the latest chapter in the story of a nation of immigrants from around the world, who crossed first by foot over the Bering Straits, then in ships powered by sails, and then by steam - some not always of their own free will. The evidence of their crossing is to be found on Ellis Island and in other memorials.

Here in these photographs is the evidence of the latest crossing. These human artifacts, both the ubiquitous and the mysterious, are found in migrant camps and along arroyos. Some of these objects carry deeper meanings not immediately apparent; we can only imagine the person reading El Diario de Ana Frank, perhaps a young Oaxacan girl the same age as the teenager doomed by the Holocaust. The dolphin key ring in the dirt in one of the photos could be from anywhere - but, like the bit of saltwater fishing tackle affixed to the makeshift cactus altar in another image, the dolphin reminds us that many of the migrants come from the seaside villages near Veracruz. The objects the travelers carry with them, including family photos, help them connect with home. But here the dolphin key ring becomes an artifact of fishermen's lives lost in a sea of sand.

It has been said that the mission of documentary photography is to inspire social action. As a documentary photographer, I am inspired by the work of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Russell Lee. Their compelling photographs, commissioned by the Farm Security Administration during the 1930s and 1940s, showed destitute American migrants and helped change public sentiment and government policies. In this time of polarizing public debate, questionable activity by citizen militias, and government inertia, it is my hope that this book will inspire social action leading to humane immigration policies that eliminate suffering and death along the migrant trail.

Michael Hyatt, Tucson 2007


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