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U-M anthropologist receives grant to study forensics of migrant bodies

By Rachel Reed

Anne Curzan, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of English and associate dean for Humanities, says Ted Talks are “ideas worth spreading.”
University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León just wrapped up one part of his long-term Undocumented Migration Project, an anthropological study of clandestine border crossings in places like the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona, northern Mexican border towns, and the southern Mexico/Guatemala border.
Now, he’s gearing up for a new challenge.
Thanks to an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship, De León will receive forensic science education and training to complement his current work in order to study how governments deal with the bodies of migrants who die while crossing borders.
“I am seeking to look at the ways in which we can identify people who die without identification,” said De León, assistant professor of anthropology in U-M’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. “This grant will give me the resources to get the training I need, as well as travel globally to see how this is happening in the real world.”
The Mellon New Directions grant, which will total $234,000, aims to help humanities academics expand their training outside their main areas of expertise, thereby fostering cross-disciplinary research. De León will study at U-M and at other universities across the country, and will collaborate with researchers at other institutions who are doing similar work. He will receive 16 months of funding for his training, which will include graduate courses and even internships.
“Jason De León has done amazing work along the U.S.-Mexican border,” said Andrew Shryock, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor and chair of anthropology. “His research is changing the way we think about undocumented migration, and the Mellon grant will allow him to do new work on a global scale.”
De León’s background is in anthropology, specifically Latin American migration, theories of violence, materiality, death and mourning. The grant will enable him to branch into forensics to study the ways in which migrant bodies are treated, from identification to repatriation. Identifying the bodies not only recognizes the humanity of the migrants, but also helps return them to their families and loved ones, he says.
“I’ve spent a significant amount of time thinking about what happens to migrant bodies in the desert and the impact that fatalities have on families of victims,” De León said.
“One of the things that has really struck me is that, despite the high number of fatalities, there is very little forensic work being done to identify the bodies. Often, since they’re not U.S. citizens, there is less interest in identifying them. I’m interested in what can we do, and how politics impacts this type of work.”
De León looks forward to continuing his research on migrant experiences through the additional insights that forensics will bring.
“This is a wonderful, unexpected opportunity,” he says of the Mellon Fellowship. “It’s a big honor to receive something so competitive, which will give me the freedom to explore.”

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