In a new photo book about undocumented immigrants, one of the first images is from a funeral: 2,000 people from a village in Guatemala walk to a cemetery carrying the bodies of a 10-year-old and his 11-year-old neighbor. The children were kidnapped (most likely by gang members) on their way to school, and when their parents couldn’t pay ransom they were killed.
“I think in looking at immigration in the U.S., especially undocumented immigration, it’s important to think about the reasons why people leave their homes in the first place to come here,” says John Moore, a special correspondent for Getty Images, who has spent the last decade documenting immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border. He decided to edit those photos into a book, called Undocumented, after the 2016 presidential election. “In some cases, it’s economic, of course. But in many cases it’s absolutely obscene violence that’s taking place.”
In Honduras, which has the highest murder rate of any country in the world, Moore took portraits of gang members. “Gangs, at least on the street level, control the whole country . . . street gangs are so powerful that many families either have to allow their children to be recruited into gangs, or come north and escape those very dangerous places,” he says.
For those who leave, the journey is equally dangerous. At one point, Moore boarded a moving train to join hundreds of immigrants on the roof as the train traveled through Mexico. The train roof is also controlled by gangs who rob riders. And as people ride, they risk falling and losing a limb. In one portrait, a 22-year-old woman stands on one leg. She’d fallen asleep and tumbled from the train’s roof five days into her journey from Guatemala.
Immigrants who make it to the border continue to face other dangers. Some die attempting to cross the Rio Grande or the desert. Others, like eight people who were discovered dead in the back of a truck in a Walmart parking lot in San Antonio in 2017–in 100-plus degree weather–are the victims of careless smugglers.
At the border, Moore documented the harsh landscape and some of the existing stretches of border walls (in one photo, the wall stops abruptly in the middle of bushes). He also shows the militarization of the border, including boot camp for border patrol agents, an armed agent in a helicopter, an armed paramilitary volunteer in Arizona, and a predator drone. The use of technology continues to increase. Aerostat balloons, for example, formerly used in Afghanistan and Iraq, are used to beam images to LCD screens in vehicles. Cameras hidden in trees send alerts to agents via smartphones.
The book shows what happens to those who are arrested and detained, either at the border or after living in the U.S. for years. It also shows everyday life for those who make it through and work as day laborers on construction sites or on farms. In the last section, Moore shares portraits of new Americans on the day of their naturalization ceremonies.
Some of the strongest images show small moments. In one photograph, a woman handcuffed to a man holds his hand. When he took it, Moore had been riding with border agents, who heard from others in a helicopter about a group of immigrants traveling nearby. The agents sped through the brush, and let loose dogs, who found the group. “As they pulled people out from under the brush, they were covered in dust and sweat and they were afraid,” he says. As two immigrants were handcuffed together, Moore saw the woman reach out to hold the man’s hand to comfort him.
“I couldn’t interview them, so I never knew what they left behind,” he says. “I never knew what happened during their journey. I never knew if they were a couple or if they had just met there in that moment, a brief moment of humanity. Sometimes the photographs don’t answer questions, sometimes they raise questions. I think that’s part of the beauty of photojournalism. We never have all the answers. Sometimes pictures are designed to make you think.”