January 23, 2023
Gabriella Soto |Arizona State University
3:00 PM in 315 Haskell Hall

ABSTRACT: What kinds of evidence can scholars produce to provoke substantive political change? For over a decade, my research has revolved around the topic of deaths along the US-Mexico border among undocumented migrants. The majority of writing on this subject begins by listing a death toll (~10,000 deaths) as a call to action. Here, I explore a question introduced by one of the leading Arizona forensic anthropologists investigating such deaths: Is there a magic number of bodies that would provoke policy change?

In groundbreaking legislation passed in 2021, the US government acknowledged a “humanitarian crisis” of migrant deaths for the first time, prioritizing investment in the humanitarian actions of the US Border Patrol towards mitigating this crisis. But scholars and activists have long contested that the deaths are a direct result of Border Patrol policies that explicitly leverage danger as deterrence, using hostile wilderness in remote border zones to inflict a corporeal “cost” on undocumented migrants.

In this lecture, I will propose that if the state rigorously adhered to its own reporting standards for filing death certificates, migrant fatalities would be appropriately classified as homicides. My theory is that there is not necessarily a magic number, but rather a need to contextualize these deaths as products of violence. This would allow us to draw a clear line from policies that cause deaths towards policies that prevent them. 

BIOGRAPHY: Dr. Soto is a contemporary archaeologist who builds from archaeology’s attention to the material world to make sense of contemporary social issues, also drawing from ethnographic methods, GIS technology, and archival research. Her expertise is in the field of migration materialities, with a geographic focus on Latinx migration and border security at the US-Mexico border. Dr. Soto is currently working on a scholarly manuscript entitled Boundary work: Ruination, Forensic Evidence, and Care for the Dead at the US-Mexico Border. The focus of this work is postmortem investigation, forensic evidence, commemoration, and care for undocumented migrants who die during border crossings in the US southwest.

Dr. Soto’s work also appears in numerous refereed journals, including Current Anthropology, American Anthropologist, and the Journal of Social Archaeology. Her article, “Object Afterlives and the Burden of History: Between ‘trash’ and ‘heritage’ in the footsteps of migrants,” was awarded the American Anthropological Association Archaeology Division’s Gordon R. Willey Paper Prize in 2019. She has contributed chapters for the scholarly volumes, The New Nomadic Age: Archaeologies of Forced and Undocumented Migration and Sociopolitics of Migrant Death and Repatriation: Perspectives for Forensic Science. Gabriella also contributes to the online anthropology magazine, Sapiens.org. Her research has been funded by the Louis Foucar Marshall Foundation and the Wenner Gren Foundation. 

Please join us for a reception on Haskell’s mezzanine immediately following Dr. Soto’s talk.