Moving Photos Capture the Complex Story of Undocumented Immigrants

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The Photo Blog
Feb. 12 2014 11:03 AM

Moving Photos Capture the Complex Story of Undocumented Immigrants

San Diego, Calif. Family members reunite through bars and mesh of the U.S.-Mexico border fence at Friendship Park on November 17, 2013 in San Diego, Calif. The U.S. Border Patrol allows people on the American side to visit with friends and family through the fence on weekends, although under supervision from Border Patrol agents. Access to the fence from the Tijuana, Mexico side is 24/7. Deportation and the separation of families is a major theme in the immigration reform debate.
Family members reunite through bars and mesh of the U.S.–Mexico border fence at Friendship Park on Nov. 17, 2013, in San Diego. The U.S. Border Patrol allows people on the American side to visit with friends and family through the fence on weekends, although under supervision from Border Patrol agents. Access to the fence from the Tijuana, Mexico, side is 24/7. Deportation and the separation of families is a major theme in the immigration-reform debate.

John Moore/Getty Images

In 2010 John Moore began photographing immigration and border-security issues in Arizona after the state passed law S.B. 1070, one of the strongest pieces of anti-immigrant legislation ever passed in the United States. The law, among other restrictions, also allows law enforcement to stop anyone who, within reasonable suspicion, might be undocumented, something opponents of the law feel is a free pass for racial profiling. “The basic intent of the law was to make life so difficult for undocumented immigrants in the state that they would ‘self deport’ either to other states or back to their home countries,” Moore said.

Moore, now a New York City-based senior staff photographer for Getty Images, has worked in 15 Latin American countries during his career, including 8 living in Mexico and Nicaragua.* His experience working in those areas and his ability to speak Spanish were essential when he first started covering immigration. He had also worked for both the Associated Press and Getty Images in Iraq and Afghanistan documenting the U.S. military, which introduced him to a culture and language that were applicable to law enforcement. Both of those experiences gave Moore the structure to photograph the highly sensitive issue of immigration from both sides.

Moore said he approached the project with the intent of looking at the issues “in as many ways as possible.” He said he explained the point of his project to immigrant communities and those in migrant shelters around the United States as wanting to put a human face on the issue; many decided to participate. He photographed a variety of people, including older men who were recently deported after living in the United Sates for many years, Cubans seeking asylum, and transgender people. He also tried to focus on families who had assimilated into American society.

Elizabeth, N.J. Police arrest protesters blocking the entrance of an immigrant detention center on December 10, 2013 in Elizabeth, N.j.. A coalition of immigrant advocacy groups marked international Human Rights Day, staging the civil disobedience action at the Elizabeth Detention Center, and eight protesters were arrested. The event was designed to draw attention to the continued mass deportations of undocumented immigrants by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as well as Congress' inability to pass immigration reform. The Obama administration is on track to have removed 2 million immigrants from the United States, the most of any presidential administration.
Police arrest protesters blocking the entrance ofElizabeth Detention Center on Dec. 10, 2013, in Elizabeth, N.J. A coalition of immigrant advocacy groups marked international Human Rights Day, staging the civil disobedience action at the immigration detention center, and eight protesters were arrested. The event was designed to draw attention to the mass deportations of undocumented immigrants by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as Congress' inability to pass immigration reform.

John Moore/Getty Images

Nogales, Mexico Immigrants pray during a Catholic Mass held at the Kino Border Initiative center for migrants March 10, 2013 near the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales, Mexico. The center feeds hundreds of meals per day to immigrants recently deported from the United States and those about to attempt to cross into the U.S. illegally.
Immigrants pray during a Catholic Mass held at the Kino Border Initiative center for migrants on March 10, 2013, near the U.S.–Mexico border in Nogales, Mexico. The center feeds hundreds of meals per day to immigrants recently deported from the United States and those about to attempt to cross into the U.S. illegally.

John Moore/Getty Images

La Joya, Texas  U.S. Border Patrol agent Sal De Leon stands near a section of the U.S.- Mexico border fence while stopping on patrol on April 10, 2013 in La Joya, Texas. According to the Border Patrol, undocumented immigrant crossings have increased more than 50 percent in Texas' Rio Grande Valley sector in the last year. Border Patrol agents say they have also seen an additional surge in immigrant traffic since immigration reform negotiations began this year in Washington D.C. Proposed refoms could provide a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million undocumented workers living in the United States.
U.S. Border Patrol agent Sal De Leon stands near a section of the U.S.–Mexico border fence while on patrol on April 10, 2013, in La Joya, Texas. According to the Border Patrol, undocumented immigrant crossings have increased more than 50 percent in Texas' Rio Grande Valley in the last year.

John Moore/Getty Images

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His work also led him to more dangerous places, including time in Mexico near the Guatemalan border, where Central Americans ride up through Mexico toward the U.S. border atop freight trains, which they refer to as la bestia or “the beast.” “It’s really dangerous for them, both because they sometimes fall asleep and tumble off the trains and also due to the gangs that board the trains, extorting from these people on certain stretches of the journey,” he said. Moore rode with them but only during short periods of time and only during the day.

Once an undocumented immigrant was in custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, however, Moore said he wasn’t allowed to photograph the faces of the detainees. “This required a fair amount of creative cropping, silhouettes, shots from behind, blurs, etc.,” Moore said. He was also unable to interview the detainees for anything on record and was only able to identify himself and tell them he was working on a project without giving much background information.

By following the rules, Moore gained the officials’ trust, which allowed him rare access into places like the Adelanto Detention Center in Southern California, the largest immigrant detention facility in the state.

Arriaga, Mexico Central American migrants climb atop a freight train headed north early on August 4, 2013 in Arriaga, Mexico. Thousands of immigrants ride atop the trains, known as "la bestia," or the beast, during their long and perilous journey through Mexico to the U.S. border. Many of the immigrants are robbed or assaulted by gangs who control the train tops, while others fall asleep and tumble down, losing limbs or perishing under the wheels of the trains. Only a fraction of the immigrants who start the journey will arrive safely on their first attempt to illegally enter the United States.
Central American migrants climb atop a freight train headed north on Aug. 4, 2013, in Arriaga, Mexico.

John Moore/Getty Images

MESA, AZ - FEBRUARY 28:  A Honduran immigration detainee, his feet shackled and shoes laceless as a security precaution, boards a deportation flight to San Pedro Sula, Honduras on February 28, 2013 in Mesa, Arizona. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), operates 4-5 flights per week from Mesa to Central America, deporting hundreds of undocumented immigrants detained in western states of the U.S. With the possibility of federal budget sequestration, ICE released 303 immigration detainees in the last week from detention centers throughout Arizona. More than 2,000 immigration detainees remain in ICE custody in the state. Most detainees typically remain in custody for several weeks before they are deported to their home country, while others remain for longer periods while their immigration cases work through the courts.
A Honduran immigration detainee, his feet shackled and shoes laceless as a security precaution, boards a deportation flight to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, on Feb. 28, 2013, in Mesa, Ariz. ICE operates four to five flights per week from Mesa to Central America, deporting hundreds of undocumented immigrants detained in the western states. Detainees typically remain in custody for several weeks before they are deported to their home country, while others remain for longer periods while their immigration cases work through the courts.

John Moore/Getty Images

He also photographed immigrants with shackled feet as they boarded a deportation flight to Honduras. Creative Time Reports published these images in a story last month to highlight that the Obama administration has deported 2 million immigrants since 2008, more than any president in U.S. history. Moore also said that the U.S. government spends more on immigration enforcement than all other federal law enforcement combined.

Moore says he feels comprehensive immigration reform is important for a number of reasons, one being that many immigrants are sent home, separated from their families in the U.S., based on minor violations such as traffic tickets. “It has become a cliché to talk about undocumented immigrants ‘living in the shadows,’ ” Moore said. “That’s of course not literally true, as we are surrounded by them every day, doing the work most Americans refuse to do. We would not have affordable food on our tables without them. And for the most part, these folks go way out of their way to stay out of trouble—the last [thing] they want is to get arrested. The good news is that the political environment is becoming more favorable to reform. I just hope it’s sooner rather than later.”

Havana, Texas A U.S. Border Patrol agent escorts a group of undocumented immigrants into custody with helicopter support from the U.S. Office of Air and Marine on May 20, 2013 near the U.S.-Mexico border in Havana, Texas. The Rio Grande Valley area has become the busiest sector for illegal immigration on the whole U.S.-Mexico border with more than a 50 percent increase in the last year.
A U.S. Border Patrol agent escorts a group of undocumented immigrants into custody with helicopter support from the U.S. Office of Air and Marine on May 20, 2013, near the U.S.–Mexico border in Havana, Texas.

John Moore/Getty Images

Adelanto, Calif. Immigrant detainees pray during a prayer group in a general population block at the Adelanto Detention Facility on November 15, 2013 in Adelanto, Calif. The facility, the largest and newest Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), detention center in California, houses an average of 1,100 immigrants in custody pending a decision in their immigration cases or awaiting deportation. The average stay for a detainee is 29 days. The facility is managed by the private GEO Group. ICE detains an average of 33,000 undocumented immigrants in more than 400 facilities nationwide.
Immigrant detainees pray during a prayer group in a general-population block at the Adelanto Detention Facility on Nov. 15, 2013, in Adelanto, Calif. The facility houses an average of 1,100 immigrants in custody pending a decision in their immigration cases or awaiting deportation. The average stay for a detainee is 29 days.

John Moore/Getty Images

Phoenix, Ariz Immigrant inmates show off a pair of pink underwear while sitting on a bunk in the Maricopa County Tent City jail on March 11, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona. The striped uniforms and pink undergarments are standard issue at the facility. The tent jail, run by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, houses undocumented immigrants who are serving up to one year after being convicted of crime in the county. Although many of immigrants have lived in the U.S for years, often with families, most will be deported to Mexico after serving their sentences.
Immigrant inmates show off a pair of pink underwear in the Maricopa County Tent City jail on March 11, 2013, in Phoenix. The striped uniforms and pink undergarments are standard-issue at the facility. The tent jail, run by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, houses undocumented immigrants who are serving up to one year after being convicted of crimes in the county. Although many of immigrants have lived in the U.S for years, often with families, most will be deported to Mexico after serving their sentences.

John Moore/Getty Images

Falfurrias, Texas An unidentified immigrant's bones are reassembled after the remains were exhumed from a gravesite on May 22, 2013 in Falfurrias, Brooks County, Texas. In Brooks County alone, at least 129 immigrants perished in 2012, most of dehydration while making the long crossing from Mexico. Teams from Baylor University and the University of Indianapolis are exhuming the bodies of more than 50 immigrants who died, mostly from heat exhaustion, while crossing illegally from Mexico into the United States. The bodies will be examined and cross checked with DNA sent from Mexico and Central American countries, with the goal of reuniting the remains with families.
An unidentified immigrant's bones are reassembled after the remains were exhumed from a gravesite on May 22, 2013, in Brooks County, Texas. At least 129 immigrants died in 2012 in Brooks County, most of dehydration while making the long crossing from Mexico. Teams from Baylor University and the University of Indianapolis are exhuming the bodies of more than 50 immigrants who died while crossing illegally from Mexico into the United States. The bodies will be examined and cross-checked with DNA sent from Mexico and Central American countries, with the goal of reuniting the remains with families.

John Moore/Getty Images

*Correction, Feb. 14, 2014: This post originally stated that John Moore has covered Mexico and Nicaragua as a photographer for Getty Images since 2005. He's covered Mexico and Nicaragua at different points in his career for various outlets, including Getty Images and the Associated Press.

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