At the first Republican presidential debate ahead of the 2024 election, the candidates’ only significant disagreement around the topic of unauthorized immigration was in the level of vehemence with which they denounced it. With participants largely equating these migrations with drug trafficking, the tenor of most of the stage was summed up by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis promising to “use force and leave them stone-cold dead.”

The truth of the matter — and real solutions to these issues — do not lie in fearmongering and fiery rhetoric, says Jason De León, professor of anthropology and Chicana/o and Central American studies at UCLA since 2019 and director of the Undocumented Migration Project since 2009.

To get his research-based take on this issue, we spoke with De León, who is also celebrating a full-circle Bruin moment. Starting this November and coinciding with its 50th anniversary, he will become the new head of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA, a place where he once served as an undergraduate work-study student.

“His appointment is historic for multiple reasons, including that he is from Los Angeles, he will be the first Chicano/Latinx person to lead this important institute, and his groundbreaking research will further center the public mission and impact of Cotsen to the world,” said Abel Valenzuela, interim dean of the division of social sciences. “I’m thrilled about Jason’s appointment and look forward to supporting his leadership. It is a big deal for me, for the division of social sciences and for the future of archeology at UCLA and beyond.”

To help kick off Hispanic Heritage Month, we asked De León about his work as well as his upcoming book, which will be published in March.

Immigration will be talked about and debated by every presidential candidate and political pundit throughout this campaign cycle and beyond. What should everyone know about this issue?

We need to get to a point where we no longer think about this problem as an issue to be solved with border walls or barbed wire. No border security measures will ever stop people who are desperate to seek shelter or protect their families.

We need to talk about what’s happening in these countries where neighborhoods are becoming unlivable. We need to talk about the role that the U.S. plays in all of this, whether it’s destabilizing countries politically or keeping them underdeveloped economically because it benefits us. Plus, the Global South is feeling the brunt of climate change, but they are not the people who are driving it — for example, Honduras isn’t an industrial powerhouse fueling climate change, but every year folks have to flee from there because of super hurricanes.

Rather than wasting money on border protections, we need to think about how we can improve conditions in these other places. It’s hard, though, because people often think, “That’s Mexico’s or Honduras’ problem.” But these are global problems, and oftentimes we as Americans are deeply implicated in those countries’ issues.

We also need to think about the important role that immigrant labor plays in our domestic economy. Once people are here, no one is checking the agricultural fields for people’s papers, because we want to keep the prices of our produce low. Our politicians need to reckon with this labor we rely on so much and acknowledge the tax and cultural contributions of these immigrants. The problem to be solved is not at our geopolitical boundary.

What do you make of the phenomenon where border states like Texas bus migrants up north?

It’s really unfortunate that certain states have been using these poor, desperate people as political pawns in a show that does nothing to address the bigger issues. We need to ask those politicians to stop grandstanding and offer real solutions and nuanced discussions about what the root problems are. I don’t think the problem is 100 people asking for asylum in Texas; I see the problem as the conditions that force those people out of their home countries. It takes empathy to put ourselves in their position so that we can understand why they are coming and so that we can have more insightful and productive conversations.

What should readers know about the most recent work being done by the Undocumented Migration Project?

We’ve shifted a lot toward families of missing migrants, working with folks who are looking for loved ones, trying to understand how people disappear and the difficult road to be reunited. Our exhibition work has also been growing: We’ve done probably close to 100 installations about migrant death and disappearance around the globe since 2019.

How have things changed since you began your work with the project 14 years ago?

The people who are crossing borders these days have really diversified. When I began the project, I was largely working with young Mexican men. Now you see people from Haiti crossing through Tijuana; you can have people from Venezuela coming up through the Darién Gap. It’s also not just adults; it’s family groups and unaccompanied minors. The migration flows have gotten bigger and more international — we are living in a global migration crisis now where we’re seeing this happen around the world: the Mediterranean, Turkey, Greece, North Africa. It’s always been about poverty and political instability, but now it’s also about climate change. You can’t have a conversation about migration without talking about the impacts of climate change.

Tell us about your upcoming book, “Soldiers and Kings,” which comes out March 2024.

It’s based on about seven years of ethnographic fieldwork that started in 2015 when I was at the University of Michigan. I followed the lives of mostly young men from Honduras who were getting paid to smuggle migrants from southern Mexico all the way up to the U.S. border. People have a lot of misconceptions about smuggling; they confuse it with trafficking. The book is an attempt to understand how the system works by examining how young people get sucked into this difficult, dangerous world. Smuggling is incredibly precarious, low-paying and directly linked to things like transnational criminal organizations, which has led to a rise in gang members becoming smugglers. I’m trying to show people that the world of undocumented migration is really complicated and gray. The black-and-white idea of the “good migrant, bad smuggler” doesn’t hold up when you look at the whole process.

People need to understand that smuggling is a direct product of the capitalism of border enforcement. When we tighten up borders and yet still employ people who are undocumented, it creates this necessity to get across those borders, which fuels the smuggling industry.

What’s the first step everyone in the UCLA community could take on this issue?

Dive deeper than what you might read in popular media. Often, I hear what feels like the same stories on repeat on the news — and if I feel that way, living and breathing this work, I can understand how other people might just want to flip to the next page. But to move beyond that, I encourage everyone to seek out other kinds of stories that aren’t the superficial narratives that make good soundbites. Why are thousands of people dying in the Mediterranean, in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and in South Texas? What’s the history of that? What are we doing to deal with it? These are really important questions that we all need to keep asking.