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Hostile Terrain 94 exhibit comes to Notre Dame, draws attention to migrant deaths in southern Arizona

| Tuesday, March 29, 2022

As a part of the University’s Immigration Advocacy Week, the Hostile Terrain 94 (HT94) exhibit will be on display in O’Shaughnessy Hall until Friday after opening Monday. HT94 features more than 3,200 handwritten toe tags that represent migrants who have died attempting to cross the Sonoran desert in Arizona between the mid-1990s and 2019.

The exhibit is an art project sponsored and organized by the non-profit research-art-education-media collective Undocumented Migration Project. The data on the tags and the names of the migrants were individually handwritten by students and faculty members. The tags are geolocated on a map of the desert that depicts the exact location where the remains of migrants who disappeared or died along their journey were found. 

HT94 exhibitCaroline Collins | The Observer
Toe tags representing migrants who have died crossing the U.S. Mexico border have been geolocated on a wall map of the Sonoran desert in O’Shaughnessy Hall as part of the Hostile Terrain 94 exhibit.

“The physical act of writing out the names and information of the dead invites participants to reflect, witness and stand in solidarity with those who have lost their lives in search of a better one,” professor Kraig Beyerlein, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, said. 

The traveling exhibit has been displayed at institutions across the country and around the world. Beyerlein said the intention of the exhibit is “to raise awareness about the humanitarian crisis in America’s southern border [and] to engage with communities around the world in conversations about migration.”

The exhibit’s opening on Monday featured a discussion panel with presentations from professors Daniel Martinez and Robin Reineke from the University of Arizona. Martinez and Reineke have conducted research that specializes in migrant deaths and disappearances along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Martinez said migrants have been pushed into the most remote and dangerous areas of southern Arizona as a result of the Prevention Through Deterrence strategy enacted in 1994. The goal of this strategy was “to deter migrants from crossing the border in the first place by heavily enforcing certain historic regions,” Martinez said. 

This strategy ended up forcing migrants to cross the borderlands in areas isolated from nearby towns with rugged terrain and limited cell service in order to remain undetected, Reineke said.

“This is a constructed landscape … and it has been constructed to be a killing tool,” she said. 

Martinez said research has revealed that the migrant death rate in southern Arizona remains relatively high, even amid fluctuations in undocumented immigration. He said the increasing number of migrant deaths is a direct consequence” of an increased border patrol presence in southern Arizona.

“These migrant deaths are not only anticipated but they are largely preventable,” he said. 

Reineke discussed the effect of migrant disappearances on migrants’ families and the different ways that migrants have disappeared. These include disappearing from state records and social memory. 

“[Families] experience bureaucratic disappearance when their loved one disappears while crossing the border, and at every level searching for their loved one they face obstacles and inaccurate information,” Reineke said. “Not only [have] thousands of individual lives [been] lost, but also horrifically erased from memory and disparaged.” 

At the end of the panel, Reineke addressed the audience and expressed gratitude for those involved with the exhibit.

“I am thankful for the labor that you all are doing and have done to recognize and remember and call out the loss of life in the borderlands,” she said.

Beyerlein said the panel and exhibit are particularly relevant to Notre Dame students and the University’s Catholic identity.

“Being a Catholic University, places like Notre Dame have a particular voice given Catholic Social Teaching and social justice to bear witness to this suffering and death,” Beyerlein said.

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