Hostile Terrain 94: A Project by the Undocumented Migration Project at Chapman University

Hostile Terrain 94 by the Undocumented Migration Project


Hostile Terrain 94 (HT94) is a participatory art project sponsored and organized by the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP), a non-profit research-art-education-media collective, directed by anthropologist Jason De León. The exhibition is composed of ~3,200 handwritten toe tags that represent migrants who have died trying to cross the Sonoran Desert of Arizona between the mid-1990s and 2019. These tags are geolocated on a wall map of the desert showing the exact locations where remains were found. This installation will simultaneously take place at a large number of institutions, both nationally and globally in 2020.


In 1994 the United States Border Patrol formally implemented the immigration enforcement strategy known as “Prevention Through Deterrence.” This was a policy designed to discourage undocumented migrants from attempting to cross the U.S/Mexico border near urban ports of entry. Closing off these historically frequented crossing points would funnel individuals attempting to cross the border illegally through more remote and depopulated regions where the natural environment would act as a deterrent to movement. It was anticipated that the difficulties people would experience while traversing dozens of miles across what the Border Patrol deemed the “hostile terrain” of places such as the Sonoran desert of Arizona would ultimately discourage migrants from attempting the journey. This strategy failed to deter border crossers and instead, more than six million people have attempted to migrate through the Sonoran desert of Southern Arizona since 2000. At least 3,200 people have died, largely from dehydration and hyperthermia, while attempting this journey through Arizona. In recent years, this policy has shifted people towards Texas, where hundreds (if not thousands) have perished while migrating through unpopulated wilderness. Prevention Through Deterrence is still the primary border enforcement strategy being used on the U.S./Mexico border today.

The Installation

Over the course of two months in the fall of 2020 (leading up to the American presidential election), 94 pop-up installations will be realized simultaneously around the globe in locations including Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Seattle, Miami, Mexico City, San Pedro Sula (Honduras), San Salvador (El Salvador), and Lampedusa (Italy). These installations will be a 16-20 foot long map of the Arizona/Mexico border with ~3200 hand written toe tags. These tags represent the recovered bodies of people who have died between 2000 and 2020 crossing the US/Mexico border through the Sonoran Desert. These tags are color coded (manila for identified bodies and orange for the approximately 1,000 unidentified) and will be filled out by teams of volunteers who will then publicly place them in the exact locations on the map where those individuals were found. These tags are synched to a large grid to ensure accurate placement of individual remains. Each map will come with introductory wall text explaining the project and also feature an augmented reality (AR) experience to accompany the map that can be accessed for free using a cell phone app.


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