Documenting the Undocumented

John Moore

A new book of photography captures the many faces of undocumented immigration.

Mexican migrant workers harvest organic parsley at Grant Family Farms on October 11, 2011 in Wellington, CO. John Moore / Getty

Interview by

The plight of undocumented immigrants in the United States has dominated headlines in recent weeks. The deployment of the National Guard to prevent Central American asylum seekers from crossing the US-Mexico border, the murder of Claudia Gomez Gonzalez by a Border Patrol agent, the forcible separation of immigrant parents from their children — the stories keep breaking, like a trickle of blood becoming a hemorrhage.

What’s often lost, though, is the full scope of undocumented immigration, situated in both time and place, from the destabilization of Central America and the rise of the war on drugs to the use of undocumented labor and the deployment of draconian law enforcement in the United States.

That is the perspective offered by Undocumented: Immigration and the Militarization of the United States-Mexico Border, a new book of photojournalism by John Moore, special correspondent for Getty Images. Moore spent ten years covering undocumented immigration, crossing the entire length of the US-Mexico border and traveling extensively in Mexico and Central America. Throughout that time, he documented seemingly every aspect of the 2,500-mile journey north — funerals of children murdered in Guatemala, migrants riding freight trains through Mexico, smugglers casing the southern US border — as well as the reception awaiting undocumented immigrants in the United States: border agents armed with automatic rifles, predator drones preparing for takeoff, vigilantes out on patrol. Combining photographs with brief essays in both English and Spanish, Undocumented provides an expansive view of contemporary undocumented immigration.

Jacobin recently spoke with Moore about the conditions in Central America that drive people to flee, the power of photography, and more.


Politicians and the media have recently been obsessed with a so-called “caravan” of asylum seekers reaching the US-Mexico border from Central America, where Undocumented begins. Can you describe the conditions that drive people to make this harrowing journey?

JM

The caravan of immigrants traveling through Mexico this April was organized by Pueblos Sin Fronteras, which has also done this in previous years, although not all the way to the US border. President Trump seized on a story originally published by BuzzFeed and then used the caravan as a pretext to send US National Guard troops to the border.

The body of a man killed in a suspected drug-related execution lies along the path where he was shot on March 1, 2012 in Acapulco, Mexico. John Moore / Getty

I went to northwestern Mexico to photograph a portion of the caravan’s journey north to Tijuana. They were mostly families seeking political asylum in the United States, although many applied for asylum in Mexico. They were escaping violent conditions in their home countries, chief among them Honduras, where gang violence and political instability have become, for many people, increasingly impossible to live with. Many families had to flee suddenly, with few possessions.

In Honduras, the US government supported the 2009 right-wing coup and the presidential incumbent in the disputed 2017 election. The resulting insecurity and clashes there, combined with gang and drug violence, have driven migration from that country.

Another aspect of the US role in Central American migration that’s brought up in Undocumented is the States-side origin of the street gang MS-13. Can you discuss how MS-13 went from Los Angeles to Central America? And how fear of the street gang is now being stoked to fuel deportations?

JM

MS-13 originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s in the immigrant Salvadoran community. In subsequent years many members were convicted of crimes and deported back to El Salvador, where they spread the gang to their home country. The “Maras” are now powerful throughout much of Central America, primarily in the “Northern Triangle” countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Families attend a memorial service for two boys who were kidnapped and killed on February 14, 2017 in San Juan Sacatepequez, Guatemala. John Moore / Getty

In the United States, MS-13 has grown in some Central American immigrant communities, which is ironic and sad, as so many asylum seekers fled their countries to the US to escape the Maras. MS-13 has committed crimes, including murder, in various US communities, and federal law enforcement, including ICE, has gone after them. President Trump recently referred to them as “animals.” The dragnet, though, has swept up many undocumented immigrants who had nothing to do with gangs. ICE sometimes refers to these people as “collaterals,” and although they may not have been gang members themselves, once they are in detention, they are subject to deportation due to current Trump administration policies.

What was your impression of the paramilitary groups that patrol the US-Mexico border?

JM

In the case of Arizona Border Recon, many of the volunteers are former military or law enforcement officers. They go for week-long operations on the border for what they consider patriotic reasons.

December 9, 2010, in the Tohono O’odham Reservation, AZ. John Moore / Getty

That said, they don’t train together, and any military or police unit that does not train together will never be an effective force. In the case of their surveillance ops on the border, the smugglers will often just wait them out. Even if AZBR volunteers stop someone crossing, they don’t have the authority to actually detain them, but rather just to call the Border Patrol. So, in that sense, they aren’t vigilantes, as they can’t actually do much more than surveil, delay — and look tough.

According to Arizona Daily Star, the founder of Arizona Border Recon was previously investigated for planting improvised explosive devices on border trails and the militia movement in general has ties to violent neo-Nazis. Do you believe the purpose of these groups is really just surveillance?

JM

I think we have to separate purpose from motivation. It’s quite possible that the purpose of these groups is likely as stated — to deter human and drug trafficking along the border. Their motivation, however, depends very much on the particular volunteer, and may come from much darker places.

A boy from Honduras watches a movie at a detention facility run by the US Border Patrol on September 8, 2014 in McAllen, TX. John Moore / Getty

In Undocumented, you write that the “biggest winners” in ICE’s current operations are for-profit prison companies, like CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America) and the GEO Group. What role do these companies play in the detention of undocumented immigrants and in US politics more broadly?

JM

Both CoreCivic and the GEO Group donated heavily to the Trump campaign, according to press reports, and their stock prices shot up when he won the presidency. These for-profit prison corporations make money every time ICE sends them new immigrants for detention. Many of the immigrants they receive from ICE have been longtime residents of the United States and actively try to fight deportation in immigration courts.

A man looks through the US-Mexico border fence into the United States on September 25, 2016 in Tijuana, Mexico. Friendship Park on the border is one of the few places on the two-thousand-mile border where separated families are allowed to meet. John Moore / Getty

While they are awaiting their trials, many are housed in these prisons, which are scattered across the United States. It’s lucrative business for the prison corporations. I should mention that both CoreCivic and the Geo Group also house many thousands of criminal prisoners who are non-immigrants. The United States incarcerates more people than any other country and it’s big money.

All of the text in Undocumented is bilingual, presented in both English and Spanish; in contrast, your photographs are singular, presented as they are. Does this suggest something about the power of witnessing versus the nature of explaining?

JM

I think that we are in a golden age of photography. Much has been said of the negative aspects of everybody thinking they are a photographer, just because they use the camera in their phones. Well, I look at this another way: I think that people are more visually literate than ever and that the use of phone cameras has created a great interest in photography in general. I believe that people do appreciate the difference between an amateur photo and a professional piece of photography. That’s why Getty Images matters and is doing so well, even if many newspapers have struggled in the last decade.

Undocumented immigrants comfort each other after being caught by Border Patrol agents near the US-Mexico border on April 13, 2016 in Weslaco, TX. John Moore / Getty

So, yes, the camera and the images it creates, whether from my professional Canon DLSR cameras or my iPhone (which I also use professionally for video), is a powerful tool in the hands of a human witness. As a photojournalist, that is my job: to document history as it happens and shed light on the moments that would otherwise remain unseen, and that includes showing many sides of the story.

A Mexican immigrant family sits in the living room of their rented home on April 24, 2010 in Tucson, AZ. John Moore / Getty

That notwithstanding, words matter too; otherwise I wouldn’t have taken the great effort to have all the captions and essays in both English and Spanish. I wanted this book to be accessible to more people, and, frankly, I thought it would have been insulting to do a book on undocumented immigration from Latin America in only English.

Can you identify one misconception that you believe is most detrimental to our understanding of undocumented immigration?

JM

The undocumented immigrants of today on the receiving end of intolerance and xenophobia are not all that unique in US history. Nationalist attitudes have surfaced time and again as waves of immigrants have come to America for a better life. In the 1950s the Eisenhower Administration deported a million Mexicans in what they officially called “Operation Wetback.” That was the official name!

US Border Patrol agent Sal De Leon stands near a section of the US- Mexico border fence while stopping on patrol on April 10, 2013 in La Joya, TX. John Moore / Getty

During the Trump campaign, I spoke with numerous immigrants, both documented and undocumented, and they were very concerned that Trump would be elected president. I told them it was doubtful, but they insisted and were preparing for it. They were right, because they’d seen it all before.