Hostile Terrain 94 Undocumented Migration Project

Remembering Those Who Fell Victim to The Global Migration Crisis

“Hostile Terrain 94” is a participatory installation organized by the Undocumented Migration Project, a non-profit collective focusing on research, art, education and media under the direction of anthropologist Jason De León. The exhibition includes over 3,200 handwritten toe tags that represent migrants who have died trying to cross the Sonoran Desert of Arizona between the mid-1990s to 2019. The exhibition can be found in the D’Angelo Center foyer at St. John’s University. The toe tags were written by student and faculty volunteers who dedicated their time to remember those who have perished. These tags are intentionally geolocated on a map of the desert, showing the exact coordinates where the remains were found.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) President and St. John’s senior, Grace Musser, says to give the volunteers’ voices primacy, because “without them, this would not have been possible, and some of them really committed themselves to this. It has been beautiful to see the impact of this project on so many in the St. John’s community.” Volunteer and St. John’s student Chandni Butt reflects on what a powerful experience it was to set up the exhibition. “Hostile Terrain gave me perspective of the lengths that immigrants would go to live a comfortable life, as well as the ‘extent’ that the U.S. has gone to aid in immigrants’ success in achieving a comfortable life,” said Butt. 

Rosanna Jiang, a Sophomore legal studies major at St. John’s University, also volunteered through CRS to work on filling out toe tags for the exhibit. “The toe tag experience made me view things so differently, this project has connected me in an emotional level that I can’t even put into words,” said Jiang. “I felt heartbroken for them, but it made me feel empowered to know that they will never be forgotten.”

PHOTO CREDIT/ Grace Musser

St. John’s collaborators know that this is an emotional task, but nonetheless an important one. The project shines a light on the harsh realities of U.S. Border Patrol policies and keeps the memories alive of the thousands who have died in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.

Holly Gola, a Junior Global Development and Sustainability major at St. John’s and CRS Vice President, is inspired by the interest St. John’s students have taken part in the organizing, planning and execution of the installation. “From the more than two hundred volunteers who helped fill out and check tags to everyone who simply stopped to learn more about it and admire the exhibit, I can only hope that this installation truly brought an attention to the border policies that impose these realities and that a sense of solidarity can be found in the near future,” said Gola. 

According to the original curator of the installation the interpretative goals that the exhibits are intended to cover begin with awareness. The Undocumented Migration Project states that the instalation’s purpose is “to raise awareness during a presidential election season about the realities of the U.S./Mexico border including the death and suffering that has been happening daily (since Clinton Administration) as a direct result of the Border Patrol policy known as ‘Prevention Through Deterrence (PTD)” as well as “to globally memorialize the thousands who have died as a result of PTD, especially the hundreds of still unidentified people whose remains have yet to be reunited family members.” Lastly, the installation aims “to construct an affordable, accessible, and democratized exhibition that draws in community participation across a range of national and international locations.”

I felt heartbroken for them, but it made me feel empowered to know that they will never be forgotten.

— Rosanna Jiang

Student volunteer Peter Paolo, a Government and Politics and History major at St. John’s, thinks students and faculty should not stop at just the exhibit but also take action against the cruelty. “When I saw the poster board with all the toe tags at the memorial event, I saw a wall of injustice, of lives cut way too short, of exhausted migrants desperate to get to a land of opportunity,” said Paolo. “While it is proper to honor the dead, we should embrace our call to action. We should urge lawmakers to craft laws that put the innate human dignity at the center of our immigration laws, especially for asylum seekers.” 

On Thursday, March 24, the “Hostile Terrain 94” Undocumented Migration Project Remembrance Vigil took place at the exhibit in the DAC foyer. The vigil’s purpose was to pray for those who have perished due to injustice. Students and faculty then  gathered for a podcast with the exhibits curator, participated in a roundtable discussion with fellow students and faculty and enjoyed provided hospitality. 

More information about Hostile Terrain 94 and the Undocumented Migrant Project can be found on their website.  The Office of Campus Ministry, The Catholic Relief Services (CRS) Global Campus Committee, LASO, CRS Ambassadors of Global Justice and the Office of Academic Service Learning all collaborated in the installation of this exhibition