Archaeology in Trump’s America: Borders, Immigration, and Revolutionary Remembering


Four days ago, I started this post with a framework already in mind. In that framework, we had our first female president. In that framework, absurd and hateful ideas such as a wall stretching across our southern border or laws banning Muslims from entering our country became rhetorical lessons for future generations of voters, lessons about how blatant xenophobia and racism had carried a candidate and how that candidate had lost. I expected to write this post and say that though the looming danger of those promises had passed, the hate and fear had not, and that we had quite a lot to work on as archaeologists confronting the words, ideas, and practices that perpetuate that hateful rhetoric.

And then, Donald Trump won the election.

Where before I felt that our job was dialogic and weighty, I now feel that it is critical. It is potentially revolutionary. The world has changed overnight, and the role of archaeology along with it. We must be ready to meet the challenges. They are new, uncertain, and frightening, but now is the time for our discipline to show its political teeth.

We saved the topics of immigration and displacement until election week because they have been unwaveringly central to the political discourse of this election cycle. For so long, promises of walls, mass deportation, and Islamophobic legislation were dark shadows on the distant horizon of a painful and divisive year. I never thought that we would see the storm, but it is here. Those ideas, whether or not they become a violent reality under this administration, have been validated and celebrated by enough of our electorate that their spokesperson has come to lead our country into an increasingly uncertain future.

So much of this is rooted in fear. In an exit poll conducted by the New York Times, the majority of Trump supporters named immigration and terrorism as the deciding factors of their vote. In speeches and rallies, Trump fanned the flames of this rhetoric of fear, claiming to overcome the iron bars of political correctness, making vague and unrealistic promises about protecting the country from an imaginary pantheon of foes – the Mexican rapist, the radical Muslim, the tax-eating (and exclusively non-white) immigrant. Those flames turned half the country red. We watched it seep across maps on Tuesday night with growing disbelief and horror.

This is our challenge, and it is real – we are not only fighting a rhetoric that dehumanizes, but the increased threat of its material and legislative ramifications.

This is what I think archaeologies of migration and displacement have to offer in our current, and pressing, political moment:

  • An nuanced historical understanding of immigration that can challenge deeply held prejudices in the present
  • Contemporary insight into current migrations, our nation’s policies regarding them, and the devastating effects they have on human beings
  • A powerful and necessary resistance against collective forgetting

Further, these must all be rooted in a collaborative and engaged archaeological practice. I said in my first post that archaeology and politics converged around three main points: that archaeology bears on political issues in the present, that it provides powerful tools for engaging in conversations about these issues, and that it is ethically rooted in values that uphold human rights and social justice. I did not write these with a Trump presidency in mind. But I think they are more prevalent now than three weeks ago.

"A boy playing catch through the bollard-style wall [in Ambos Nogales]. December 17, 2011."

“A boy playing catch through the bollard-style wall [in Ambos Nogales]. December 17, 2011.” (Photo: Randy McGuire; McGuire 2013)

Promoting Historical Understandings of Immigration

Historical archaeology has taken immigration seriously: archaeologies of the immigrant experience in America have yielded considerable insight into the ways converging nationalities and identities have come to shape the country in the past and present. It also has dealt extensively in forced international migrations, particularly African Diaspora archaeology and the slave trade. Some migrations within our borders have received significant attention in recent decades, such as the northward movement of those who risked their lives on the Underground Railroad. Some forced migrations in our country have received less historical attention: the displacement of indigenous peoples in the historical past, for example, is not one we hear about often, despite the deep structural violences that continue that displacement in the present. (This in particular poses a critical and immediate challenge as the safety and security of the Standing Rock Water Protectors is directly threatened by the outcome of this election.)

One task we can take on is turn the gaze on what it means to be white in America. Archaeology of Irish, Italian, and Polish immigration (among others) can contribute to discussions of the construction of whiteness that are critically necessary in the wake of this election. “This was a white-lash against a changing country,” Van Jones told us Tuesday night as what we thought was cinched election – perhaps naively, from our academic bubbles – fell to pieces around us. We’ve seen this in explicit ways through KKK endorsements and blatant racism at Trump rallies, but the underlying fear of non-white others as a threat to the “American people” demonstrates that the American people is conceived of as a very exclusionary and specific category – white, English-speaking, Christian Americans. Opening up that category is perceived as a threat. This is a much more widespread and insidious form of racism.

Irish Immigrants at Ellis Island, New York

Irish Immigrants at Ellis Island, New York (Photo:

Many of Trump’s voters are likely descendants of European immigrants who at one point in our history were denied whiteness, derided and racialized as second-class citizens – though few would know this now, since it has largely receded from the public’s historical memory. Establishing white identity – particularly American white identity – was a social process of differentiation that occurred at the expense of people of color, largely within working class communities to preserve cheap labor in capitalist interests. The threat of a changing country exposed the fragility of white nationalism in the present, and white nationalism responded in kind. Talking about whiteness – and white privilege – is something many of us are positioned to do, and a challenge we should take on with renewed force.

Other archaeologies of the immigrant experience in America can foster empathy, interest, and understanding – or better, challenge the ways the public perceives immigration in the present. Some examples include Barbara Voss’s work in San Jose’s Chinatown and other Asian diaspora archaeology projects, the University of Maryland’s work in Lattimer, PA (particularly regarding labor movements), work in Annapolis on Filipino immigrants and African American communities, and our own work at Binghamton with the Alsatian migration in Castroville, Texas. These are very few of many, and deserve more treatment than I can give them here. But for those of us working on historical sites of immigration, we can and should use these as an opportunity to talk about immigration in the present. Our archaeological sites are spaces that can radically challenge xenophobic and racist perceptions, that call for revolutionary empathy and critical re-engagements with the human side of political issues.

Contemporary Archaeology of Forced and Undocumented Migration

Archaeology of the US-Mexican Border

Jason De León’s work on the US-Mexican border with the “Undocumented Migration Project” uses images, stories, and objects to demand a visceral interaction with a journey that to so many Americans is an abstract piece in a political puzzle. A Dora the Explorer backpack left in the desert. Images of men and women sitting aboard the network of trains known as La Bestia for their tendency to take limbs and lives. The notion of drinking tainted water during a multi-day hike across the hot, deadly expanse of desert. A combination of contemporary archaeology and ethnography brings the border crossing into sharp relief, much too close for comfort – and that discomfort is exactly what is needed. Chants of “build the wall” contrast sharply with human suffering endured for an unsure future. The “Undocumented Migration Project” does the critical work of bringing this discussion to a wider public through art installations, interviews, publications (see De León’s new book), and on their website online.

Migrants aboard

Migrants aboard “La Bestia” – part of a photo essay published in Sapiens titles “A View from the Train Tracks” (Photo: Jason De León,

Randy McGuire’s work along the US-Mexican border grapples with the material violences of such walls. In Ambos Nogales, a city that sits astride the border, the large metal barrier separates families and creates zones where transgression is threatened with bullets. It is a physical manifestation of power and control, but is also subject to resistance and ingenuity. His work is also a testament to the importance of working with communities on the ground, applying archaeology to real-world issues to find collaborative and constructive solutions (see McGuire 2013).

It is unlikely that Donald Trump’s wall will see realization, but we are entering a period of unprecedented uncertainty. If it did, it would likely destroy archaeological sites, ecosystems, and livelihoods. But more importantly, it will cost so much and do so little. People will still risk their lives – perhaps more than ever before – to reach a better chance at life, and that hateful rhetoric will still be here to meet them, along with laws that deliver harsh punishments.

Contemporary archaeology of the border opens spaces to critically engage those who fear undocumented migration in new conversations that include real people rather than abstract villains, foster empathy rather than hate, and lead to constructive conversations about immigration policy in our country.

Archaeology of the Refugee Experience

Beyond the spatial immediacy of our southern border, we are faced globally by forced migrations and mass displacements from wars, poverty, and climate change. Most prevalent to the election is the refugee crisis in Syria, the question of asylum, and Donald Trump’s unhinged but widely-accepted promise to bar all Muslims from entering the country. The entire election seemed to ride on a tide of Islamophobia. Fear of a “radical Islam” was consistently translated into the conflation of millions of Muslim men, women, and children seeking safety with the actions of a small, radicalized few – the very same people who continue destroy their homes, lives, and families and force them to seek asylum in the first place. The journeys of Syrian refugees have flashed in images across our television screens, but beyond that we know little of their lives and experiences. Fear and hate is easy from a safe distance.

Yannis Hamilakis published an article in The Nation earlier this year describing the Moria Refugee Camp in Lesbos. The island is archaeological-site-in-becoming, as all sites are, strewn with the material traces of migrant crossings that are not seen as worthy of preservation. “A detailed and systematic archaeology of contemporary migration in the Mediterranean is urgently needed,” he asserts, as these traces are removed and erased from future records. Kostis Kourelis similarly calls for archaeological attention to Greece’s old and new refugee camps. In a post titled “An Archaeology of Care,” Bill Caraher expounds on the importance of the archaeology of forced Syrian migration beautifully, arguing that archaeology is well-situated to attend to current human crises (I encourage you to read it in its entirety).

Moria Refugee Camp in Lesbos

Moria Refugee Camp in Lesbos (Photo: Yannis Hamilakis,

At the upcoming SHA conference in Fort Worth, these archaeological engagements with refugee experiences have inspired a session of the same name: “Archaeologies of Care: Rethinking Priorities In Archaeological Engagements,” organized by Richard Rothaus and Chris Matthews. Including but not restricted to the Syrian refugee crisis, this session addresses archaeologies of displacement with an emphasis on working with local people and communities – and the critical importance of caring as we practice our discipline.

Resisting Collective Forgetting

Our country seems to be in desperate need of a reminder that the past matters deeply for the present. Collective forgetting is a powerful force – it allows children of immigrants to deride immigrants in the present, voters to accept political speech that resembles that of historically fascist regimes, people to ignore the contemporary suffering of millions of people worldwide.  It is this type of forgetting that allows us to disregard and then repeat history.  A powerful example is Estaban Gómez’s article on the similarities between Trump’s rhetoric of fear and the political rationalization behind forcing thousands of Japanese-Americans into internment camps during World War II.

“The barracks that once stood at the site of Amache were home to more than 7,000 Japanese-American internees during World War II.” Esteban M. Gómez (Photo:

Archaeology is poised to present a material intervention into the process of forgetting that has lead us inexorably to where we find ourselves today. Let’s call it a revolutionary remembering – a call to the public to recognize the past, to grapple with its power in the present, and to acknowledge the undeniably, irrevocably human element to past and present political speech and action. A wall is not just a wall that guards a border, but a material act of violence in an already violent process that hurts people. Promoting Islamophobia and policies that uphold it is not passive self-protection, but an active contribution to the crisis that renders men, women, and children homeless and bloodied in the millions overseas.

Donald Trump’s discourse is one of forgetting, and a dangerous one at that. Archaeology is a discipline of remembering, and that may be one of the most revolutionary tools that we have for the fight ahead.

Doing Archaeology in Trump’s America: What Now?

We act. As citizens of a country we care deeply about, we can seek out ways of making active contributions as we face the changes ahead. As archaeologists, we can challenge and resist through our work, the discursive spaces we create, and the critically minded conversations we can generate. We can organize with each other and with the public. We can work to make our work widely known and strikingly relevant. Most importantly, we listen to and mobilize for those whom this change in power will affect most deeply and most painfully: Black, indigenous, immigrant, and LGBTQ communities, women, those who stand to suffer from environmental injustice, Muslim-Americans and Muslims worldwide. We engage in archaeologies of care.

Archaeology is no longer just about starting conversations; it must be a call to action.

I woke up this morning devastated. And I am going to bed ready to fight like hell with the tools I have – from my trowel to my classroom – to make this world a place for everyone.


Works Cited

McGuire, Randy (2013) “Steel walls and picket fences: Rematerializing the U.S.-Mexican border in Ambos Nogales.” American Anthropologist 115(3): 466-480.

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