Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
January 17, 2022

Hostile Terrain 94 delivers harsh critique of America's immigration policies

By ANGELA CHEN | December 7, 2021

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COURTESY OF MIN-SEO KIM

The Hostile Terrain 94 display uses toe tags to underline the human cost of America's immigration policies. 

Installed earlier this fall, the Hostile Terrain 94 exhibition is on display in Q-level of the Milton S. Eisenhower (MSE) Library. Hostile Terrain 94 was launched by anthropologist Jason De León and aims to create a visual representation of the struggles that immigration policies regarding the U.S.-Mexico border pose to migrants. 

The installation highlights the U.S. Border Patrol’s Prevention Through Deterrence immigration enforcement strategy that began in 1994. Prevention Through Deterrence entails utilizing the natural “hostile terrain” of areas of the Southwestern U.S. as a physical deterrent to attempts by undocumented migrants to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. The policy remains in use today. 

The installation of Hostile Terrain 94 in MSE was pioneered by the Archaeological Museum, which collaborated with several other units across the University to bring the project to fruition.

Associate Director of the Archaeological Museum Sanchita Balachandran and Associate Professor of Anthropology Alessandro Angelini co-organized the installation. More than 250 Hopkins affiliates contributed to this exhibition, which belongs to a series of over 150 simultaneous installations globally.

The main exhibition is a wall display consisting of approximately 3,200 handwritten toe tags that symbolize the migrants who have died attempting to cross the Sonoran Desert of Arizona between the mid-1990s and Jan. 5, 2020. Manila-colored tags denote the migrants whose remains have been identified; orange tags signify those who remain unidentified. 

These tags have been placed upon a copy of the map of the Sonoran Desert on the main wall; each one corresponds to the location within the desert where migrants’ remains were found.

Angelini described the efforts behind the exhibition in an email to The News-Letter

“The campus lockdown due to COVID-19 forced us to delay the exhibition by one year, but it also allowed us to learn more about the project and think imaginatively about what possibilities it could open up on campus and beyond, in terms of making connections between Hopkins and Baltimore-area organizations,” he wrote. 

Angelini emphasized the collaborative and interactive nature of the exhibition. 

“I’ve dedicated myself to enlisting colleagues and their students in courses related to immigration, globalization, the state, violence, and Latin American culture and history in the important participatory component of the installation,” he wrote.

Balachandran, who was involved in the organizational and administrative details of the exhibition, discussed the personal significance of bringing Hostile Terrain 94 to Hopkins in an email to The News-Letter.

“There was so much to the exhibition that fit with what I care about — the participatory nature of it, the subject matter, the strange beauty of this topography of death, the way that those tags come out at you from a wall and how the weight of these peoples’ lives and deaths take up space, as they deserve to,” she wrote.

Drone footage of the desert and informational plaques with QR codes to websites regarding the project also accompany the tagged map, providing additional context and explanations to viewers of the exhibition.

Freshman Mary Lee described her first impressions upon seeing the exhibition in an interview with The News-Letter

“It’s very interactive with the people [who see it],” she said. “I feel like it does the job of bringing awareness and evoking feelings [in its viewers] that people should do something about this problem. As citizens, we should speak out about this issue. It’s hard to look at, but it’s necessary to see it.”

Freshman Jenny Zeng spent a day working on Hostile Terrain 94 with her Urban Citizenship class and echoed the sentiment expressed by Lee.

“I filled out one [tag] after another, not completely comprehending the weight of the words I was writing down. It wasn’t until I stumbled upon what appeared to be ... a family that died together on a journey towards what they must’ve hoped would be a better life [that] it dawned on me that each tag I filled out represented a real person — someone with stories to tell and memories to make,” she wrote. “Each tag I filled out meant that someone had lost their dreams to the hostile terrain of the border.”

Sophomore Natalia Stefańska, who contributed to the exhibition as a volunteer coordinator, described the project’s emotional impact.

“I came in intending to write a couple tags, so one day, when the exhibit is complete, I can come and look for my handwriting and feel like I participated in this... I ended up dedicating my whole heart to this project,” she wrote. “Why? I think I saw that behind those tags are people whose stories never got told.” 

Junior Shajae Pinnock, another participant, noted that storytelling is a key aspect of the project.

“I wanted to work on this project because I think it is important to highlight the stories of everyday people — people who have friends, families and dreams — who have lost their lives in the pursuit of their dreams,” she wrote. “People who have been murdered by the state and their callous policies.”

Hostile Terrain 94 includes a work station where exhibition viewers can fill out additional tags with the information of both identified and unidentified migrants who perished in the Sonoran Desert between 2020 and 2021. Viewers are encouraged to leave notes expressing their thoughts on anything pertaining to the project, human migration and the costs of U.S. policies. 

Lee elaborated on what Hostile Terrain 94 made her think about and how she views its impact. 

“When I first came to this exhibit, I wouldn’t know how many people died crossing the border, and it’s the impact of [immigration] policies that have led to thousands of people dying,” she said. “Now that I’m more aware of this, the question is, what can I do about this as an individual? And as people, what can and should we do to change it?” 

Balachandran expressed similar ideas regarding immigration policies and the varied ramifications they can have.

“I am also an immigrant and the daughter of immigrants to the US, and I often think about the pure happenstance of my own life here, the way that I was able to come here, and how extraordinarily privileged that is and the struggles that came even with that relatively easy passage,” she wrote. “It felt important to acknowledge that sense of privilege but also sheer luck — and to witness in some way what happened to others who did not have those chances.”

According to Angelini, eliciting awareness and calling people action were key goals of the project.

“We hope that it serves both as a solemn memorial for those whose lives were lost to this horrific policy (and the xenophobia and racism that engendered it) and a catalyst for dismantling the legal and infrastructural systems that perpetuate harm and death for border-crossers,” Angelini wrote.

Hostile Terrain 94 will be available for viewing in MSE until Jan. 24, 2022. 

Min-Seo Kim contributed to the reporting of this article.

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