Inside the border crisis: Photos from the front lines

Photographs by John Moore/Getty Images
Story by Kyle Almond, CNN

They can face dangerous gangs and treacherous terrain on their way to a heavily militarized border, but every day people continue to take their chances and try to enter the United States illegally from Mexico.

The pull is just too great.

“I've learned that it's very difficult to keep families apart,” said John Moore, a Getty Images photographer who has spent the past 10 years covering the immigration issue from both sides of the border. “Children will travel alone across long distances. Parents who've been deported previously will do anything to get back to their families on the other side of the border.”

Families attend a memorial service for two boys, ages 10 and 11, who were kidnapped and killed in San Juan Sacatepequez, Guatemala, in February 2017. Moore said gang violence is one of the primary reasons people are emigrating to the United States.

Moore’s photos give us a glimpse of what life is like for would-be immigrants and the different reasons why they might begin such a perilous journey. Family is just one of them. Many people are also fleeing because of poverty and gang violence back home.

Moore has traveled to Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala and accompanied people at the start of their trip north. He also provides a view of what awaits: an armed Border Patrol and a divided America. He has had access to many federal agents and gone out with them during some of their patrols.

A trainee climbs over an obstacle at the US Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, New Mexico, in August 2017.

Dust rises as Border Patrol trainees fire rifles at targets during a weapons-training class.

US agents inspect an immigrant’s tattoos while detaining him in Los Angeles in October 2015. They said the man, who held a green card, was a convicted criminal and member of an LA gang called the Alabama Street Gang.

Women and children sit in a holding cell at a Border Patrol processing center near McAllen, Texas, after being detained by agents in September 2014.

These experiences are part of Moore’s new photo book, “Undocumented: Immigration and the Militarization of the United States-Mexico Border.” The book has more than 180 pictures and is written in both English and Spanish.

“Through this book I hope that people will have a more nuanced view of immigration and border-security issues,” Moore said. “These issues are often presented as black and white, and they're not at all. There are many shades of gray.”

Central American immigrants ride on top of a freight train near Juchitlan, Mexico, in August 2013. Thousands ride the trains — known as “la bestia” (the beast) — during their long journey north to reach the US border.

After living in Latin America for much of his career, Moore has always been keenly aware of the immigration debate. But it wasn’t until he returned to the United States that he recognized what would soon develop into a political powder keg.

In 2010, Arizona passed SB 1070, “which at the time was the toughest anti-immigration law passed in the country,” Moore said. “I started seeing a level of xenophobia and fear of immigrants that became more of a nationwide phenomenon since that time.

“I could see it starting in Arizona back then. At that point really I knew this was going to be an important project and something important to our subscribers.”

Undocumented immigrant families walk near McAllen, Texas, before being taken into custody by Border Patrol agents in July 2014.

Moore drove “every inch” of the US-Mexico border and looked for different ways he could photograph the story.

He began shooting in the desert of Nogales, Arizona, to highlight the dangers immigrants face as they cross the border. In the desert, he would find valuables and other personal items next to skeletal remains.

This belt buckle was found with the scattered bones of a person discovered in the Arizona desert in February 2014.

These coins and crucifix were found with the skeletal remains of a person discovered in the Arizona desert in September 2014.

A woman's ring that was found with mummified remains in June 2014.

Personal items that were found on decomposed remains in 2014.

The age of those crossing has been one of the biggest developments in recent years, Moore said.

“When I first started this project 10 years ago, it was mostly adult men and sometimes women coming across. Beginning really in 2014 and continuing to this day, many of the immigrants now crossing are families or unaccompanied minors.”

People play golf in Lajitas, Texas, near the US-Mexico border, in October 2016. The golf course was built on the banks of the Rio Grande in the remote and rugged Big Bend region.

One of his photos shows a young boy from Honduras watching a children’s movie from a detention facility in Texas.

“The empty space and the loneliness he must have been feeling comes through in the picture and still stays with me,” Moore said.

A boy watches a movie at a Border Patrol detention facility in McAllen, Texas, in September 2014.

Inside the United States, Moore has visited dozens of immigrant communities and helped tell their stories, too. But that’s becoming more difficult over time.

“The US is so divided now politically, and the immigrant community is living in a state of fear and that's made people more wary of photography,” he said. “I'm able to continue to get access. I just have to work harder at it.”

Mexican migrant workers harvest organic parsley at a farm in Wellington, Colorado, in October 2011.

Moore’s Spanish-speaking skills have helped, as has his experience and eagerness to tell everyone’s story.

“In my experience, when I'm open and honest and straightforward with people, I get extraordinary access into their lives,” he said.

That even includes gang members.

Genenis Yamileht and her husband, Jose Natanael, are from El Salvador. Moore took their portrait at an immigrant shelter in Ixtepec, Mexico, in August 2013. They said they planned to ride a freight train north the next night as part of their journey to the US border and eventually to Houston, where he previously worked for eight years. She told Moore she was pregnant but hoped to get employment as a domestic worker. He wanted to work as a carpenter.

Agent Fuentes, 32, stands for a portrait while attending the US Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, New Mexico, in August 2017. Fuentes said that before joining the Border Patrol he had been a nursing student. Moore said most Border Patrol agents have some Latino heritage and they’re all required to learn Spanish if they don’t know it already.

“Big Dog,” a street gang member, poses for a portrait at his group’s safe house in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in August 2017.

Junilsa Vasquez, 14, prepares to take her oath of allegiance before receiving her US citizenship in February 2013. Vasquez was born in the Dominican Republic. She was living in New York with her mother, who also had become a US citizen.

Throughout his book, Moore includes portraits of people he has met: immigrants, Border Patrol agents and their prisoners, recently naturalized US citizens, and gang members. The gang members are important to show, Moore said, because it is often extreme violence that has compelled many immigrants to seek political asylum in the United States.

“Photographing different groups with the same style of portrait was a visual way for me to tie many different stories together. … Also these portraits were a way for me to try and humanize the story even more.”

Arizona conservatives sing the National Anthem at a rally against illegal immigration in July 2010.

Moore said it was only after the last presidential election that he decided to turn his photos into a book.

“If Hillary Clinton had won the election, immigration would probably not have been such a major theme afterwards,” he said. “With Trump as President, we've seen something very different.”

A Border Patrol agent stands near a section of border fence during a patrol in La Joya, Texas, in April 2013.

But despite the country’s polarization right now, he is hopeful that progress will be made.

“The issues of immigration and border security are so big they can seem overwhelming, but if we as a society look at these issues as human issues, then I think we can come up with more humane solutions. I don't know that it will be done, but I think it can be done.”

A US park ranger looks toward the Statue of Liberty while traveling to Ellis Island in May 2016. The secretary of Homeland Security was visiting the island to administer the oath of citizenship to immigrants from 39 countries.

John Moore is a Getty Images photographer based in New York. His book “Undocumented: Immigration and the Militarization of the United States-Mexico Border” is now available. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

Photo editor: Brett Roegiers