Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Anna Ochoa O'Leary (University of Arizona)
In a unique study of postmortem practices across 33 county jurisdictions in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, our Binational Migration Institute research team conducted a multi-year ethnographic study of local border officials (n=69) involved in the postmortem care for undocumented migrant remains. This work was the first cross-border and community-based study of postmortem practice on behalf of undocumented migrants. We found that the space of abandonment created by federal border security policy resulted in unique possibilities for activism: though federal policy results in suffering and death for thousands of undocumented migrants, the federal government has almost no role in the postmortem care of migrants, and there are few federal regulations governing the process, leaving most all decisions about the death investigation and care to be made by local government. We conducted our research in partnership and in consultation with local community-based NGOs and our final report was written in terms that could be navigated by community-based activists. It was delivered to them to advocate for greater accountability in officials caring for (or neglecting) deceased migrants and their families. The work opened the door for a wider dialogue about the border specific etiologies of migrant death, driven by federal border security policy though left to be addressed on the local level, and the meaning of migrant deaths to communities where such deaths occur. This study left us considering how activism evolves out of shared experience and grief, and our own specific roles as both activists and researchers in this process.