Photographer John Moore discusses his new book chronicling the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.
John Moore/Getty Images
Published March 30, 2018
Published 5 months ago
THE GREAT DIVIDEFew issues get Americans more worked up than undocumented immigration. In a February 2018 Gallup poll, 15 percent of Americans (25 percent of Republicans, 6 percent of Democrats) said immigration is the most critical problem facing the United States ― topped only by concerns about governmental dysfunction. When it comes to covering the key stakeholders in the conversation, meanwhile, few can boast as much time on the ground, chronicling what immigration really looks like, as Getty Images photographer John Moore. His new book, "Undocumented: Immigration and the Militarization of the United States-Mexico Border," spans 10 years of reportage on both sides of the geographic and political divide. [Editor’s Note: John Moore is an employee of Getty Images, which owns FOTO and shares in the royalties from this book. This story was produced independently by FOTO’s editors.]
Here, Moore speaks with FOTO about his decade on the front lines of the immigration war. (Above: Mexican migrant workers harvest parsley in Wellington, Colorado, October 2011. Many farmers nationwide say they find it nearly impossible to hire American citizens for seasonal, labor-intensive farm work.)
John Moore/Getty ImagesTHE BEASTCentral American immigrants ride north atop a freight train known as "La Bestia," the Beast, in August 2013 near Juchitan, Mexico. Countless migrants ride such trains during their long, perilous journeys north. Some are robbed and assaulted by gangs who control the train tops; others fall asleep and tumble off, losing limbs or perishing under the wheels. Moore spent part of one day taking pictures on the train, with a "fixer" who showed him a safe place to climb aboard and watched his back while he took photos.
"Immigrants spend weeks on trains like this, in brutal heat, stopping briefly at shelters along the way," he told FOTO. "Their lives are literally in danger the whole time. After just a few hours on the Beast, I was stressed out, exhausted, dehydrated. Riding that train gave me a visceral appreciation of what people will endure for a chance to make it to the United States ― and how dire their situation back home must if they're willing to take such risks."
John Moore/Getty ImagesCALL OF DUTYThere are roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States ― and they come from everywhere. Millions are from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. About a half-million are from Europe. A quarter-million are from China. Many have been in the U.S. for more than 10 years. But for paramilitary volunteers like James, the U.S.-Mexico border is ground zero in the fight for America's future. "There's evil going on here," the Arizona Border Recon (AZBR) member told Moore.
For his part, Moore has no doubt that the paramilitary border patrols feel they are doing important work, intercepting drug smugglers and illegal immigrants. But because many of the groups are comprised of volunteers from different parts of the country who rarely train together, "their efforts are extremely uncoordinated and, at least while I was there, all of their targets got away. I don't question their patriotism," Moore explained. "Their effectiveness is another matter."
John Moore/Getty ImagesPRISON PRAYERSDetainees pray at the Adelanto Detention Facility in Adelanto, Calif. ― a prison managed by the private, for-profit GEO Group. The facility, plagued by "detainee deaths, suicide attempts, and hunger strikes," according to the Los Angeles Times, houses more than 1,000 immigrants; the average stay is about one month. "Economic themes dominate the immigration issue," Moore said, "whether it's immigrants coming north so they can send money home, anti-immigration groups worried about American jobs, or companies like CoreCivic and GEO Group hoping to cash in. Both companies were major contributors to Donald Trump's presidential campaign, and saw his immigration platform in terms of dollars."
Moore was not allowed to speak with the detainees in this picture, so was not able to learn why one of the men is missing half an arm. "He might have lost it to violence back home, or in an accident while riding the Beast. We just don’t know. So many photos in the book beg as many questions as they answer."John Moore/Getty ImagesUNACCOMPANIEDA boy from Honduras watches a movie at a U.S. Border Patrol detention facility in September 2014 in McAllen, Texas. The Border Patrol opened the holding center to temporarily house children after tens of thousands of families and unaccompanied minors from Central America crossed the border illegally into the U.S. in the spring and summer of that year ― a surge driven largely by people fleeing the violence that has made Honduras, in particular, the murder capital of the world.
"It's always sensitive photographing kids," Moore told FOTO. "I try and make sure that I respect the privacy and the dignity of these undocumented children, just as I would with children who were American citizens."
John Moore/Getty ImagesA PROMISE REPAIDThe Rio Grande winds through the Santa Elena Canyon in west Texas, mirroring so much of the border's stunning, unforgiving terrain. (Big Bend National Park is on the left, Mexico on the right.) John Moore took this picture out the open door of a helicopter ― and he told FOTO he was only able to get the shot because years before, he had kept a promise. As it turned out, the pilot who flew him into the canyon, allowing him this unique shot, had flown with Moore on another assignment a few years earlier. Afterward, Moore sent the pilot photographs from that flight, as he said he would ― and the pilot wanted to repay the kindness.
"He asked if I'd ever flown over Big Bend," Moore said. "I told him I hadn't, but Big Bend was three hours away. He said, 'Yeah, it is. But I've got all day.' He was grateful that I'd kept my word. And that flight over Big Bend turned out to be the most incredible ride I've ever taken, in one of the most beautiful places I've ever been."John Moore/Getty ImagesEXECUTIONThe body of a man killed in a suspected drug-related murder lies along the path where he was shot in March 2012 in Acapulco, Mexico. Drug violence surged in the coastal resort around that time, making Acapulco the second most deadly city in Mexico after Juarez.
"This photograph documents a straight-up execution," Moore said. "During the week I worked in Acapulco in 2012, there was an average of around eight executions a day. I worked with a local fixer, who's a freelance photographer and well-known to the police, so I was was able to work with some level of safety. In fact, he had purchased an extra cell phone for the medical examiner, so whenever they got a call about a fresh murder, they would call my fixer and let him know. So we had quick access to crimes scenes ― often arriving as soon as the police did."John Moore/Getty ImagesTHE MYSTERYWhen he posted this picture to Instagram, Moore wrote: "Border agents had chased the group of immigrants through the woods, their K-9s racing faster, barking louder as the scent grew stronger. When I caught up, sweating agents were pulling 10 dusty people from under thorny mesquite branches, where they had tried to hide…. The group was handcuffed in twos and led to a small clearing for transport. I looked down and saw pair of cuffed hands, a woman gently moving her thumb over a man's fingers, a small gesture of comfort after a desperate flight…. I hadn't had time to talk with them, and there were so many questions: What caused them to leave their homeland and everything they knew to make such a dangerous journey? Who had they left behind ― or who had they hoped to reunite with? Had they spent years together, or only met during the chaos of the crossing? Was she comforting a stranger or the love of her life?"
John Moore/Getty ImagesTHE GOLDEN DOORA U.S. park ranger looks towards the Statue of Liberty while en route to Ellis Island on May 27, 2016. U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson visited the island that day to administer the oath of citizenship to immigrants from 39 countries. Moore ends his book with an afterword featuring photographs of the naturalization ceremony at Ellis Island.
"I wanted to include a section in the book on new Americans," Moore said. "People focus so strongly on illegal immigration, they forget that the number of people who enter the U.S. illegally is dwarfed by the number who become citizens. I wanted to end the book on a positive note, celebrating diversity in this country. Photographing the naturalization ceremony is a joyous experience. Everyone in the room understands and appreciates the struggle to become a citizen, and what it means to be an American."