Hostile Terrain 94 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 ~3,400 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 U.S. Border Patrol officially launched the immigration enforcement strategy known as “Prevention Through Deterrence.” This was a policy designed to discourage undocumented migrants from attempting to cross the border near urban ports of entry. With these traditional crossing points closed off, it was expected that people would then attempt to cross the border illegally in more remote and depopulated regions where the natural environment would act as a deterrent to movement. It was anticipated that the difficulties people experienced while hiking dozens of miles across what the Border Patrol deemed the “hostile terrain”[1] of places like the Sonoran desert of Arizona would eventually 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 3,199 people have died, largely from dehydration and hyperthermia, while attempting this journey through Arizona.[2] 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.

Figure 1. Toe Tag Wall Prototype (Phillips Museum of Art, Franklin & Marshall College)

Pop-Up Installation Synopsis

Over the course of two months in the fall of 2020 (leading up to the American presidential election), 94[3] 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 25 foot long map of the Arizona/Mexico border with ~3500[4] 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 (Figure 1). These tags are color coded (manila for identified bodies and orange for the approximately 1,000 unidentified) (Figures 2-4) 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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Figure 2. Detail of Toe Tag Wall (Phillips Museum of Art, Franklin & Marshall College)
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Figure 3. Detail of Toe Tag Wall (Phillips Museum of Art, Franklin & Marshall College)


Interpretative Goals

 This participatory political art project is sponsored and organized by the Undocumented Migration Project (UMP), a non-profit research-art-education-media collective, directed by anthropologist Jason De León. This installation is intended to do several things:


  1. 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).
  1. 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.
  1. To construct an affordable, accessible, and democratized exhibition that draws in community participation across a range of national and international locations. The installation logistics require the involvement of many people who will directly contribute to its construction and display. The most powerful participatory element of this project involves the time and effort required of volunteers to meticulously fill out the ~3400 individual toe tag cards that include the name, age, sex, cause of death, condition of body, and location of recovery for each person (Figure 5).
  1. In addition to making the installation using a team of volunteers, each host location (in consultation with the UMP) will create locally relevant programming to coincide with the event (e.g., lectures, testimonials, vigils, performances, film screenings, etc.) that connects that community to global and local immigration issues. This includes the development of an affordable Augmented Reality (AR) experience that can connect the viewer (via a free cell phone app) to stories and visuals from the desert. Each hosting hub will run their own social media programs the week of the install and photograph and film aspects of their installation for inclusion in a book and film to be produced by the UMP in 2021.
Figure 4. Detail of Toe Tag Wall (Phillips Museum of Art, Franklin & Marshall College)

Installation Structure

In the early fall of 2020, collaborating community groups, institutions, and organizations will receive a pre-prepared installation package complete with wall map, blank toe tags, death information, detailed installation instructions, and associated promotional materials including access to online resources. The recruitment of these groups will begin 12 months prior in the fall of 2019. These groups will self-organize for the installation in consultation with members of the UMP, some of whom will physically travel to select sites to assist with the install. Between early September and the end of October 2020, all 94 installations will be realized around the world. Each hosting institution will organize additional events that week around the installation that are appropriate and relevant to local immigration issues. These communities will live stream parts of their events, as well as make photographic and video recordings that will be compiled into a website, book, and film. Host cities will potentially include large metropolitan areas (e.g., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Tucson, Detroit, Miami, Mexico City, San Pedro Sula, Madrid, Manila) and smaller cities and towns in the US and elsewhere. Some smaller locations will be chosen for their significance to immigration issues (e.g., Nogales, Mexico and Lampedusa, Italy).


Funding for this project will come from a variety of sources including development and implementation grants that the UMP will apply for, donations from individuals and corporate sponsors, and funds from hosting institutions. We predict that the funding commitment from a host institution or group is approximately $1500.[5] This fee includes installation materials, shipping, and insurance.

Personnel: The Undocumented Migration Project (UMP) is an internationally known research-education-art collective founded by Jason De León in 2009. The UMP has been featured in numerous academic publications, as well as popular media outlets including The New York Times, RadioLab, and the BBC. De León is Professor of Anthropology and Chicana/o Studies at UCLA. He is the author of the award winning book “The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail” (UC Press 2015), co-curator of the award winning exhibition “State of Exception”,  and a 2017 MacArthur Foundation Fellow.  The pop-up installation “Hostile Terrain” is based on the multi-media exhibition of the same name co-produced by Michael Wells and Lucy Cahill.

Information Packet

For additional information, please download our project description:

Synopsis: Hostile Terrain 94 Pop-Up



[1] See https://www.hsdl.org/?abstract&did=721845 for original Border Patrol document outlining “Prevention Through Deterrence.”

[2] https://humaneborders.org/migrant-death-mapping/

[3] “94” installations is a nod to both the year that Prevention Through Deterrence started and the year that the North American Free Trade Agreement was initiated, the latter having resulted in an outmigration of millions of disenfranchised Mexican farmers.

[4] 3500 dead is what would be projected for 2020 based on yearly averages since 2000. See https://derechoshumanosaz.net/coalition-work/remembering-the-dead/


[5] We are still prototyping the exhibition package and will have hosting costs finalized in the fall of 2019.