Border Patrol Agents Detain Migrants Near US-Mexico Border

The Face of Zero-Tolerance

On June 12th, veteran photographer John Moore captured migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

This article has been updated

Night has fallen in McAllen, Texas, a bordertown of about 130,000 people, flanked by the Rio Grande River. A Honduran asylum seeker — all of 2 years old and dressed in a bright pink sweater — cries as her mother is searched by U.S. Border Patrol agents. The next stop on their arduous journey — one that began one month and some 1,500 miles earlier — will be a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing center.

John Moore, a Pulitzer Prize winner and photographer for Getty Images (which owns FOTO), has bore witness to the struggles of undocumented immigrants for the past decade, collecting his often heartbreaking pictures into the book "Undocumented: Immigration and the Militarization of the United States-Mexico Border." But nothing could prepare Moore for this administration's inhumane tactics of separating children from their parents while their cases are adjudicated — a process that can take months or even years.

"As a father myself, it was very difficult for me to see these families detained, knowing that they could soon be split up," Moore tells FOTO of his recent ride-along with the Border Patrol, documented here. "I could see on their faces that they had no idea what could possibly happen."

During the course of his June 12th visit, Moore photographed everything from asylum-seekers rafting over the border from Mexico to agents chasing immigrants through sugar cane fields. Here, he tells FOTO what he saw on the ground.

ZERO-TOLERANCE POLICY John Moore/Getty Images ZERO-TOLERANCE POLICY On April 6, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new policy for an "escalated effort to prosecute those who choose to illegally cross our border." He also directed federal prosecutors to prioritize immigration cases. And though the policy does not explicitly call for the separation of parent and child, in practice, it does precisely that: While parents are taken to be prosecuted, their children are left with a sponsor or shelter. "I doubt many of these families knew about the Trump administration's recent policy on separating parents from children at the border," Moore tells FOTO. CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE John Moore/Getty Images CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE During a two-week period in May alone, some 650 children were separated from their parents as a direct result of the policy.

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A NEW RULING John Moore/Getty Images A NEW RULING Many, if not all, of the immigrants Moore photographed during his ride-along were asylum seekers from Central America, fleeing their home country due to fear of violence or even death. But a new ruling this week from Attorney General Sessions suddenly makes many previously valid asylum claims invalid. PRIMAL FEAR John Moore/Getty Images PRIMAL FEAR "Most of these families were scared, to various degrees," says Moore. "I doubt any of them had ever done anything like this before – flee their home countries with their children, traveling thousands of miles through dangerous conditions to seek political asylum in the United States, many arriving in the dead of night." Here, a Border Patrol agent shines a spotlight on a terrified mother and son found in the woods. BROKEN PROMISES John Moore/Getty Images BROKEN PROMISES "Late at the end of my visit with the Border Patrol this week, I stood in a secluded spot photographing rafts of immigrants coming across the Rio Grande, dropping off families on the U.S. side. As people made their way up the riverbank into the woods, I could hear branches breaking as they tried to find a pathway out," Moore tells FOTO. "A child, who sounded like a baby, started crying, as the group pushed through the underbrush. Later, when the agent and I made our way out, we found them walking along a dirt road. It wasn't a baby after all, but rather a 10-year-old Honduran boy with special needs. He was terrified. To try and calm him, I showed him some pictures of the river, which I displayed on the back of my camera. I then told him something that was natural to say in the moment, but that I immediately regretted. 'No te preocupas, todo va a estar bien,' I said. I told him not to worry, everything will be alright. I really wish I hadn't said that, because I'm not sure it's true." THE JOB John Moore/Getty Images THE JOB How do the Border Patrol agents feel about the new policy? Moore describes their mood as the same as it ever was, one of "resignation." "Generally speaking, agents find the bureaucracy of processing so many asylum seekers tedious," explains Moore. "Once families cross the Rio Grande from Mexico into Texas, they seek out Border Patrol agents and then turn themselves in. I'd say that many agents do have some compassion for them, but many don't think that the U.S. should be responsible for accepting them." A COMFORTING TOUCH John Moore/Getty Images A COMFORTING TOUCH A father soothes his son while being detained at the border near Mission, Texas, on June 12, 2018. THROUGH THE FENCE John Moore/Getty Images THROUGH THE FENCE Shortly after crossing into Texas, a Central American woman gazes into the distance. A LONG JOURNEY John Moore/Getty Images A LONG JOURNEY "In the case of the 2-year-old Honduran girl, the mother told me they had been traveling for a full month and were exhausted. They were taken into custody with a group of about 20 immigrants, mostly women and children at about 11 p.m.," Moore tells FOTO. "Before transporting them to a processing center, transportation officers body searched everyone and the mother was one of the last. She was told to set the child down, while she was searched. The little girl immediately started crying. It's not uncommon for toddlers to feel separation anxiety, but this would have been stressful for any child. I took only a few photographs and was almost overcome with emotion myself. Then very quickly, they were in the van, and I stopped to take a few deep breaths."
THE STORY BEHIND THE PHOTOJohn Moore shares his story of photographing the Honduran toddler crying up at her mother.

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[ED. NOTE: This article has been updated to reflect new information regarding the government's policy as well as the families in these photos.]