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ASU Honors Faculty Fellow awarded fellowship for U.S.-Mexico borderlands research

Headshot of Gabriella Soto

Gabriella Soto was awarded an ACLS Fellowship to support her research and writing exploring U.S.-Mexico border enforcement policies and undocumented migrant deaths.

June 26, 2023

Gabriella Soto, assistant teaching professor and Honors Faculty Fellow in Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University, has been awarded a 2023 American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Fellowship. Soto is one of 60 early-career scholars selected through a multistage peer review from a pool of nearly 1,200 applicants.

The ACLS Fellowship Program supports exceptional scholarship in the humanities and interpretive social sciences that has the potential to make significant contributions within and beyond the awardees’ fields, according to the organization.

Fellowships provide between $30,000 and $60,000 to support scholars during six to 12 months of sustained research and writing. Awardees who do not hold tenure-track faculty appointments — half of the 2023 cohort — also receive an additional $7,500 stipend for research or other personal costs incurred during their award term.

“With higher education under sustained attack around the country, ACLS is proud to support this diverse cohort of emerging scholars as they work to increase understanding of our connected human histories, cultures and experiences,” said ACLS President Joy Connolly. “ACLS Fellowships are investments in an inclusive future where scholars are free to pursue rigorous, unflinching humanistic research.”

Soto will receive $67,500 to support her research exploring deadly U.S. border enforcement policies through the human remains they leave in their wake. 

Her book manuscript, “Boundary Work: Ruination, Forensic Evidence, and Care for the Dead at the US-Mexico Border,” concerns local people involved in death investigation and death care on behalf of undocumented migrants. The book focuses on local investigation and activism because, while migration enforcement is the jurisdiction of the federal government, the deaths of migrants are the jurisdiction of local governments. This leaves local people to handle the social and economic toll of responding to the circumstances of exposure-related deaths and people who have been deceased in the remote wilderness for extended periods of time due to undocumented migration occurring in remote areas.

These are difficult cases to investigate, and a lack of federal standards or oversight in forensic investigation means a great deal of variability from place to place. Local people outside of government have also played an immense role in things one might think would be government responsibility, such as logging missing persons, outreach to prevent remote deaths and engaging in searches.

“This (fellowship) is a tremendous, probably once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity,” said Soto, who has been conducting research throughout the Southwest for over a decade.

“I have been working on this for years, and now having the space to finish this project is just amazing. This gives me the chance to bring the project to full completion.”

Support from the fellowship will allow Soto to take time off from teaching to focus on finishing her book, which she envisions will be about eight chapters. She has five chapters done and hopes to have the book ready for review the by the end of this year or early next year.

Soto said her research, which includes interviews with people in 69 offices in 33 counties in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, is “public anthropology that intersects with policy and a faithful recording of this long-term event that has been happening in our borderlands.”

“Although we see perennial articles about migrants dying and the wilderness, rarely do they cover how those deaths are investigated or follow through with the process to the end,” Soto said.

She explained that the deaths are handled differently depending on location, legal jurisdiction, agencies involved, investigative techniques and other factors — such as whether a coroner, which is often an elected position that doesn’t require medical training or experience, or a medical examiner is involved in investigations.

“To my knowledge, this will be the biggest study of exactly what’s happening within these unstandardized post-mortem investigations that are not always scientifically or methodologically rigorous or well-regulated. There really hasn’t been ethnographic, actual in-person study of exactly what's happening or exactly what this looks like from place to place. So, this (research) will be a contribution on multiple levels,” she said.