For example, the most abundant cause of migrant injury or death is dehydration and the only way to combat this is with bottled water. Unfortunately, there is a common assumption that clear or white water bottles are easily spotted by border patrol agents, so migrants cover the bottles in cloth or paint them black to camouflage them. This method is ineffective because the cloth and black coverings attract heat, thus causing the bottles to rapidly increase in temperature, making the water almost undrinkable. Additionally, border patrol agents rely on foot tracking, ground sensors, infrared cameras, and sound to locate people, not just sight.
The idea of having dark items to avoid detection extends to clothing, as well. Migrants wear dark clothing that is usually made of thick cotton, synthetic fibers, or denim that absorb heat and moisture. This increase of heat not only increases the rate of dehydration and exhaustion, it also makes the migrants easier to detect through thermal imaging. In Figure 1 B, the majority of the items left behind at the migrant station are dark-colored shirts, blankets, coats, and discarded water bottles.
Finally, the sneakers migrants wear are cheaply made, poorly constructed, ill-fitting replicas of higher-priced U.S. models. They choose to wear these shoes because they believe they will be sufficient to make it across the desert and that it will help them blend in once they arrive in the U.S. It is not uncommon to see migrants crossing with new sneakers and fresh haircuts. There is a common belief among migrants that the best way to avoid detection is to “not look poor” even though the sneakers cause severe blisters, which if untreated, can lead to infection.
Each of these techniques, at best, are minimally effective at preventing detection. Border patrol agents and criminals who attack migrants can easily identify migrants based on their clothing style, interaction with the environment, behavior, and the objects they carry with them. If these strategies are not as effective as the migrants think they will be, why do they continue to use them? The answer to this question is that there is little regulation of folk knowledge and a lot of mythology about what the process of border-crossing is actually like. Migrants cannot test their techniques beforehand, but assume they will work because they were told they would by guides. People’s ideas of the functionality and the efficacy of certain items (e.g. choosing sneakers that will help migrants blend in not aid their journey through the desert). Understanding the social dimensions of how a technique is used is important to understanding why it is used. The conflicting role of migrant culture helps improve our knowledge of the process of border crossing.
Buchli, Victor. 2004. Material Culture: Critical Concepts in the Social Sciences. London: Routledge.