Duke Research Blog

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Tag: immigration

From Jails to Detention Centers: a Disconcerting Immigration History

The political climate for the past ten years has been anything but calm, and central to political struggles in D.C. and elsewhere has been the ethical issues surrounding immigrant detention. But for Brianna Nofil (T ‘12), there has never been a better time to research the questions that intrigue her the most.  

A native of South Florida, Nofil has felt the undercurrent of immigration tensions throughout her life as a resident of a region with a large population of immigrants. Central to this tension was Krome Detention Center — a looming, overpowering presence in her community. Krome, which was a missile testing facility for most of 20th century, has only recently been converted to an institution to house detained immigrants. Krome had always been there, but exactly what its existence meant in her hometown was not usually acknowledged, and as Nofil remarked, “There was a reason people living there had a hazy understanding of what was going on.” 

While at Duke, Nofil, who double majored in history and public policy studies with a minor in education, let her experiences growing up lead her to a senior thesis on the history and privatization of U.S. immigration detention — which, according to Duke history professor Gunther Peck, was nothing less than “stunning.” In a round-table forum on October 1, Nofil delved deeper into her central academic interests — of which she has written about in publications such as Time and Atlas Obscura — as well as her current studies as a doctoral candidate at Columbia University.

Jose A. Iglesias for the Miami Herald

Coming to Duke, Nofil used the resources and classes in the history department to answer two chief questions: what power structures were in place to confirm an institution like Krome’s significance in the community? And where exactly did this power come from?  

These questions lead her to her current focus at Columbia, which is the history of immigrant detention centers in the 20th century. Her main argument? “U.S immigration has always really relied on jails.” 

By the early 1900s, immigration was taking hold as a major historical event in the U.S and the federal government took its chances on what it saw as the perfect solution — let local communities handle immigration, and thus control what could (and eventually would become) a growing problem. This led to a network of contracts in the 20th century that paid sheriffs of small, lower-income towns all over America a nightly rate to “board” immigrants in jails. 

One case study, as Nofil points out, centered around Chinese immigrants in the early 1900s who came to northern New York from Canada. They were held in local jails all throughout the county while their cases were processed, and communities see the booming immigrant detention business as net-positive for the community. Within mere months, these Chinese jails had created an arms race of sorts. Communities competed and clamored for more contracts from the federal government as they saw incomes in their town continue to grow. 

It’s easy to see the moral dilemma of profiting off of detaining immigrants, but what is even more concerning is why the federal government pawned off a federal responsibility to communities, thus ensuring a lack of standardization in immigrant treatment across the country. So while there was relative support surrounding the business, unease soon began to emerge. As quota laws and anti-trafficking measures were created, Canadian and European immigrants also made their way over to the U.S, prompting foreign countries to finally notice  — and ask — whether communities utilizing prisons as detention centers was ethically sound. Newspapers around this time started publishing op-eds and editorials, and soon a resistance against profiting off of jailing immigrants cropped up — something Nofil adds is “inspiring” to see, especially in the context of our own times. 

The perpetual failure of jails has allowed immigration in the modern day to position big detention centers as a humane alternative. But what does that mean for immigration detention today? As Nofil posits, early forms of resistance are inspiring because it assures us that jailing immigrants was always questioned by communities, even at that time. Communities were capable of distinguishing right from wrong, even amidst the issue of immigration where the makeup and economy of their communities were at risk of changing. As the conversation concluded, one central theme seemed to stand out — that to understand the consequences of immigration detention centers, we must look to the past to see how detention started, and only by understanding the origins can we work toward a better solution. 

By Meghna Datta
By Meghna Datta

Chronicling Migrant Deaths Along the US-Mexico Border

Science, especially social science, is rarely apolitical. Nonetheless, researchers are often hesitant to engage with the political implications of their work. Striving to protect their objective, scientific stance, they leave the discussing and at times the fighting to the politicians and legislators.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason de León is not one of those researchers. Politics is not merely implicated in his work, but rather drives it. De León studies undocumented migration between Mexico and the United States.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León directs the Undocumented Migration Project.

University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León directs the Undocumented Migration Project.

As director of the Undocumented Migration Project, De León studies what happens to the bodies of migrants crossing the desert to reach the U.S. using “any genre I can steal from,” he told an audience at Duke University on April 5. Using tools from archeology, forensics, photography, and ethnography, de León and his team have been providing novel insights into one of the most urgent political challenges currently facing the nation.

De León acknowledged the political reality of his work immediately by opening his talk with a quote from President Trump about building a “great wall.” However, he was quick to clarify that the problem of missing migrants is not partisan. Rather, it has a long history that he argues started with the 1993 immigration enforcement policy, “Prevention through Deterrence.” This policy’s aim was to redirect illegal immigration to the desert rather than to stop it. Politicians hoped that in the desert, where security is weak and the terrain treacherous, the natural terrain would serve as a border wall. Inherent in this policy is the assumption that migrant life is expandable.

In the wake of this policy, the human smuggling industry in northern Mexico experienced a swift influx and the number of known migrant deaths began to rise. Since the 1990s, over 600 migrant bodies have been recovered from the Sonoran Desert of Arizona where de León conducts his research. Until his team conducted the first forensic experiments on the site, people could only speculate as to what was happening to the bodies of missing loved ones hoping to make it across the border. Now, de León can offer some helpful if heartbreaking data.


De León examines the human consequences of U.S. immigration policy in his book, “The Land of Open Graves”

De León’s archeological method, “desert taphonomy,” examines both the natural and cultural processes that determine what happens to a dead body. Anthropologists studying the body’s decomposition were initially interested only in natural factors like the climate and scavenging animals. Recently, they have realized that the decomposition process is as social as it is natural, and that the beliefs and attitudes of the agents involved affect what happens to human remains. According to this definition, a federal policy that leaves dead bodies to decompose in the Arizona desert is taphonomy, and so is the constellation of social, economic, and political factors that drive people to risk their lives crossing a treacherous, scorching desert on foot.

Guided by this new approach, de León studies social indicators to trace the roots of missing bodies, such as “migrant stations” made up of personal belongings left behind by migrant groups, which he says can at times be too big to analyze. De León and his team document these remnants with the same respect they pay to any traditional archeological trail. Items that many would dismiss as trash, such as gendered items including clothes and hygiene products, can reveal much needed information about the makeup of the migrant groups crossing the desert.

De León argues that human decomposition is a form of political violence, caused by federal policies like Prevention through Deterrence. His passion for his research is clearly not driven by mere intellectual curiosity; he is driven by the immense human tragedy of migrant deaths. He regularly conducts searches for missing migrants that families reach out to him about as a desperate last measure. Even though the missing individuals are often unlikely to be found alive, de León hopes to assuage the trauma of “ambiguous loss,” wherein the lack of verification of death freezes the grief process and makes closure impossible for loved ones.

The multifaceted nature of de León’s work has allowed him to inspire change across diverse realms. He has been impactful not only in academia but also in the policy and public worlds. His book, “The Land of Open Graves,” is accessible and poetic. He has organized multiple art exhibitions that translate his research to educate and empower the public. Through the success of these installations, he has come to realize that exhibition work is “just as valuable as a journal article.”

Backpacks left behind by undocumented immigrants in the exhibition,
“State of Exception.”

Hearing about the lives that de León has touched suggests that perhaps, all researchers should be unafraid to step outside of their labs to not only acknowledge but embrace the complex and critical political implications of their work.

Guest Post by Deniz Ariturk

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