Wed. Jul 17th, 2024

On Thursday, Sept. 15, Northern Arizona resident photographer and activist, Michael Hyatt, came to speak in the Phillips Memorial Autograph Library in a presentation of his work “Documenting the Migrant Trail: Between Photography and Activism.” Hyatt is a member of Humane Borders and the Tucson Samaritans, two charitable organizations providing aid to migrants as they make the journey across the United States-Mexican border. Humane Borders maintains a system of water stations in the Sonoran desert. Hyatt’s primary subjects in his work are migrants and the migration process. His photos are currently on display in the Old Library for the exhibition called Human Rights in Latin America.

Hyatt characterized the process of Central American immigration to the United States before World War II as, “a smoother flow of migrants across the border for labor and seasonal work in the U.S. Mexicans would come up and then travel back,” but this state of affairs changed in “1952 with the introduction of a guest worker program that limited the number of migrants coming into the country. Now it allows a finite number of migrants to come across.” Hyatt then described a further sea change in Central-American Immigration by saying that, “in 1994 the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, allowed the free movement of capital and goods across North American borders. This resulted in growth in manufacturing in Mexico and a growth of the middle class.” Hyatt said that this, “implementation of NAFTA also required the cancellation of Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution. Under Article 27, indigenous communal land holdings were protected from sale and privatization,” and after NAFTA, “indigenous farmers, mostly in southern Mexico, faced loss of land and the importation of U.S. subsidized corn, [Mexico’s] staple cash crop.”

Hyatt also referenced Noam Chomsky who said that the result, “was militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border to stem the expected tide of economic refugees.” Hyatt then said that the construction of border walls in Tijuana, Nogales and Juarez has led to a, “funnel effect, which leads migrants into deadly desert regions,” where they have, “no food or water, the temperature fluctuates between the two extremes, they can only carry enough supplies for a few days and there are armed militia trying to hunt them down.”

“Mementos and forms of identification are dropped in the desert either as a way to lessen their loads or to erase their connection to their native countries,” said Hyatt. Now personal mementos of migrants are found scattered through the desert along with unidentifiable bodies. Hyatt took pictures of them to feature in his exhibit.

Hyatt then informed the audience that, “in 1998 the migrant death toll increased, in the Tucson area, from a couple each year, to 492 in 2005. Approximately only 492 of the bodies were found, which could, in fact be 10 percent of the actual number of bodies given that in the desert animals and natural phenomena can consume and scatter remains at an incredible rate.”

Humane Borders provides a service in partnership with the Pima County Office of Medical Examiners to, “provide geographic information systems based tools that use publicly available information to grant access to high quality downloadable spatial data regarding migrant deaths.” The Humane Borders website provides an interactive map which features a total of 2,858 recorded cases in their database.

In 2005, when Hyatt was doing the majority of his documentary work on migration, in order to cross the border he would potentially have to pay a coyote, a smuggler who sells his knowledge of the area, which could cost upwards of $3,000 for passage. According to Hyatt, coyotes travel primarily in the dark to draw attention away from themselves. “There are babies and young children who take this trip,” Hyatt said to the audience, “[and remember] that hiking overnight is when rattlesnakes and scorpions are most active. Even more shockingly, the majority of children take the trip by themselves. The majority of minors travelling alone are teens, but some are as young as five years old.”

Exhibit attendee and third-year geography student, Aaron Gallant, said that Hyatt’s speech was significant because, “as United States citizens, it’s important for us contextualize the immigration patterns that we’re seeing from Latin America to the United States. This includes the push factors that influence a migrant’s decision to leave as well as the pull factors.” Gallant then said that, “[the United States] has had a large impact in Latin America in military interventions and in overthrowing governments.” He concluded by requesting that we, “remember all of the gangsters and the paramilitary operations that the United States government has supported whenever economic migrants and refugees in this country are slandered as gangsters and violent people.”

A friend of Hyatt and member of the Tucson Samaritans, Alvaro Encisco also creates art inspired by what he sees on the migrant trail.

Enciso, however, produces conceptual art pieces out of the objects the migrants leave behind in the desert, such as tin cans. Enciso’s art is on display in the museum in the Old Library alongside Hyatt’s. In addition to his work with the Samaritans and his found-object art, every Wednesday Enciso and a handful of others follow the map made by Humane Borders to plant wooden crosses, where migrants have fallen and died. Alvaro is using this art to demand recognition for the people who die alone and anonymous looking for a piece of the “American Dream.”

In the U.S., migrant workers, according to the national farm worker ministry, work an average of 42 hours a week and earn $7.25 per hour if they have worked for their employer more than a year, but a migrant with less long-term employment receives $6.76 an hour. This is different than Mexico in 2017 where the Mexican National Commission of Minimum Wages issued a resolution setting the minimum wage at $73.04 Mexican pesos, or $3.54 in American dollars.

Emily Rodden is a second-year student majoring in anthropology. She can be reached at

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