Realities at the U.S.-Mexico Border: Then and Now

“Photography is a powerful medium: a way to observe our history unfiltered and make historical events resonate decades later. Even in an era dominated by social media, photography still continues to shock and surprise. A still image allows you to look deeply into a moment, without sound or editing splices; a photo just stares you in the face, confronting you.”

Ken Light

The following photographs depict scenes of life at the U.S.-Mexico border from the 1980s through the early 2000s. Unfortunately, these images deeply resonate with the images taken at the border today, showing how little has changed in the past four decades.

The first image is by photojournalist Kevin McKiernan and shows two individuals on either side of a chain link fence which marks the border between the United States and Mexico. On June 26, 1984, McKiernan was arrested for taking photographs of Central American refugees, as they were taken away from a camp, without permission from the Mexican government. McKiernan had gone to Mexico to photograph the “controversial relocation” of Guatemalan refugees from camps on the Mexico-Guatemalan border.

In the image, the fence divides Paso del Norte, the nickname for the second largest bi-national metropolitan area on the U.S.-Mexico border which encompasses the cities of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico. Standing in El Paso, Texas, a man, likely a border patrol agent holding a baton and wearing a gun holster, grasps and looks through the fence at a person in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The individual on the Mexican side of the fence also touches the fence with arms outreached as they look at the man on the opposite side. The openings in the fence enable residents to see each other and verbally communicate. However, the fence strictly limits physical interactions, as the top of the fence curves south toward Mexico to prevent Mexican and other Central American immigrants from climbing over the fence into the United States.

Kevin McKiernan, Mexico, U.S. side of the border at El paso, Texas; behind the undocumented person is the Rio Grande and Ciudad Juárez, ca. 1980 (379.1988)

The following image, Tijuana Nero, “vida en el bordo” (2002), is by Mexican photographer and documentary filmmaker Maya Goded. In 2001, Goded received the W. Eugene Smith Fund Grant to photograph “The Prostitutes of La Merced” from Mexico City to Tijuana and up to New York.

Tijuana Nero, “vida en el bordo” depicts a woman and two children in Tijuana, Mexico, which is a city on the border of Mexico and California. The woman holds a rifle in one hand and holds the head of one child who leans on her side. Goded titles this photograph in Spanish, Tijuana Nero, “vida en el bordo,” which translates to English as “In the Tijuana Hood, ‘life on the edge.'” The word “ñero” means “hood” or “ghetto” and “el bordo” can be translated as “the edge.”

“El bordo” may also refer to the large, dried up canal of the Tijuana River which locals call “El Bordo.” Therefore, an alternate translation of the photograph’s title is “In the Tijuana Hood, ‘life in El Bordo.'” According to the Huffington Post, “El Bordo” loosely translates to “The Border” or informally as “the ditch,” refering to its location on the U.S.-Mexico border. The Mexican newspaper Milenio states that “migrants, deportees, the homeless, and addicts” live in El Bordo. Many of the people stay in El Bordo because they wish to cross the border and/or reunite with their families in the United States.

Goded has also photographed life on the U.S.-Mexico border in series such as Missing (2005-2006) and Welcome to Lipstick (2010).

For further reading, a recent article in Salon, “What happens when a border city’s lifeline is brutally severed”, discusses the current state of Tijuana and the Zona Norte neighborhood, which is the city’s red-light district.

Maya Goded, Tijuana Nero, “vida en el bordo,” 2002 (2008.56.3)

The following four photographs are from Kevin Light’s book To the Promised Land (1988) and were taken in San Ysidro, California, which lies immediately north of the U.S.-Mexico border. According to the U.S. General Services Administration, “The San Ysidro Land Port of Entry (LPOE) is the busiest land border crossing in the Western Hemisphere; currently processing an average of 70,000 northbound vehicle passengers and 20,000 northbound pedestrians per day.”

In 1983, Light began taking photos at the U.S.-Mexico border of people trying to journey to the United States, and these four photographs illustrate the experiences people endured to cross the border into the United States in San Ysidro, California. In a 2018 Washington Post article, “30-year-old images show how little has changed in the plight of immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border,” Light explains that he took the photographs at night with a strobe, which “had an immediacy and urgency that underscored the struggle of those who had hiked for days, if not weeks.”

The first image, Victim of bandits. San Ysidro, California, depicts a man lying on the ground after having been beaten by bandits, while two United States Border Patrol agents stand above him. The agent to the left points a flashlight at the victim’s face, and the other agent holds a flashlight and a handheld transceiver in one hand, while using his other hand to place two fingers on the victim’s chin.

Ken Light, Victim of bandits. San Ysidro, California, 1985 (509.1991)

The second image, Indocumentados discovered in the trunk of a car abandoned by their coyote. San Ysidro, California, shows four “indocumentados,” undocumented persons (migrants), in the trunk of their coyote’s car. A “coyote” is the Spanish-Mexican term for a person who is hired to illegally smuggle migrants across the border from Mexico into the United States. Individuals who hire coyotes often pay extremely high fees to insure safe passage into the U.S. with the intention of starting a new life and working in the States to send money back to their families.

Ken Light, Indocumentados discovered in the trunk of a car abandoned by their coyote. San Ysidro, California, 1985 (510.1991)

The third image, Apprehended father and son in the back of an INS truck. San Ysidro, California, portrays a father, sitting on a tire, looking down with his hands on his head and his son, looking at the camera, in the trunk of an INS truck. INS stands for the Immigration and Natural Service which was an agency of the U.S. Department of Labor that was dissolved in 2003 and replaced by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security agencies: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). INS. officers determined the legality of the entry of foreigners into the United States at official Ports of Entry, such as the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

Ken Light, Apprehended father and son in back of an INS truck. San Ysidro, California, 1985 (511.1991)

The final image, Family with children, 5 months and 4 years old, from Michucan. San Ysidro, California, depicts a mother holding her 5-month-old child and a father holding his 4-year-old child. While this photograph was taken in 1985, it seems as though it could be an image taken today of families with young children attempting to cross the border into the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 1 million migrants were apprehended each year at the U.S.-Mexico border in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, whereas in 2018, there were about 467,000 apprehensions. However, in the first half of 2019, the number of apprehensions of “‘family units’ (defined as the number of individuals traveling in a family)” highly surpassed the number of family unit apprehensions per year of available data. In the past, most apprehensions at the border were of adult individuals. Currently, the numbers of asylum-seeking migrants are too high for CBP at the San Ysidro Port of Entry to handle, and four detained asylum-seekers told KQED that their conditions were inhumane.


Ken Light, Family with children, 5 months and 4 years old, from Michucan. San Ysidro, California, 1985 (512.1991)

Ken Light writes more about his photographs of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border at San Ysidro, California in the aforementioned 2018 Washington Post article, which highlights the relevancy of his work today.

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“You’ve Got a Friend”


Vu, Radio, September 14, 1932 (2007.84.61)


Lewis Hine, [Highly-skilled worker testing radio frequency alignment and making final test of chassis, RCA Victor, Camden, New Jersey], 1936-37 (957.1975)

Man working in a RCA Victor Plant. Final Inspector – testing radio frequency alignment and making final test of chassis. This takes place in a room surrounded entirely by copper screening to protect testing from any “interference.” This is the job requiring the highest skill. Even technical training, such as an electrical engineering course, must be supplemented by a course of training at the plant for this particular work. Photo-study for National Research Project of WPA. 69-RP-517. (957.1975)


Jack Delano), A class in radio for youngsters, Chicago, March 1942 (49.2003)


Bernard Hoffman, The Lone Ranger, played by Actor Earl Grasser is WXYZ’s most popular character. The enthusiastic idolatry of Detroit children forces him to wear a black mask to work, 1937 (1221.2005)


Bernard Hoffman, The Lone Ranger, played by Actor Earl Grasser is WXYZ’s most popular character. The enthusiastic idolatry of Detroit children forces him to wear a black mask to work [verso], 1937 (1221.2005)

Radio Station WXYZ (Detroit)
This is a photograph taken during an actual broadcast. The Lone Ranger is giving the cry that opens and closes his program, “Hi Yo Silver!” This picture should naturally be in with the shot of the four fellows running up to the mike with bathroom plungers. They are the decibel equivalent of the Lone Ranger’s horse.


Ken Heyman, Hell’s Angel with Transistor Radio, NYC, 1984 (2007.90.51)


Unidentified Photographer, [Man driving a truck from Soul 73 AM KKDA radio station at the South Dallas Community Appreciation Day, Texas], 1990 (3B5.518)

Although everyday is a day, and some days are more than one-day, National Radio Day is not a bad excuse to post these great radio-related photos.

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“The Statue of Liberty: A Guiding Light in a Dark World”


Picture Post, The United States: The Statue of Liberty: A guiding light in a dark world, 1940 (2007.80.2)


Unidentified Photographer, [Unidentified group with Statue of Liberty], ca. 1886 (2008.81.13)


Andreas Feininger, [Statue of Liberty at night], January 1943 (2011.78.10)


Berenice Abbott, New York Harbour, 1938 (389.1983)


Martin Munkácsi, [Woman in front of Statue of Liberty, New York], 1937 (2007.110.1889)


Weegee, Swing, baby, it’s a free country ain’t it?, ca. 1955 (3357.1993)

“The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Source: Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems and Other Writings (2002)

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V-J Day: “Everybody’s Happy in Times Square”


Weegee, [Celebrating the end of World War Two in Times Square, New York], August 14, 1945 (15627.1993)


Weegee, [Celebrating the end of World War Two in Times Square, New York], August 14, 1945 (2095.1993)


Weegee, Everybody’s Happy, New York, August 14, 1945 (15648.1993)


Weegee, [Celebrating the end of World War Two in Times Square, New York], August 14, 1945 (15624.1993)


Weegee, Little Bobby De Marco, age 7 months, at Second Ave. and 9th St., East Side, Tuesday night, after 7 PM, August 14, 1945 (15670.1993)

On Tuesday, August 14th, 1945, the news of Japan’s surrender reached New York and President Harry Truman announced Japan’s acceptance of the terms of the Potsdam Declaration during a 7 PM nationwide broadcast. Weegee (1899-1968) extensively photographed the exuberant celebrations in the Lower East Side, Little Italy, Chinatown, and Times Square, 74 years ago today, that marked the end of the Second World War.


Weegee, [Celebrating the end of World War Two in New York], August 1945 (15615.1993)

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“…the power of the atom bomb is beyond belief…”


Yosuke Yamahata (1917-1966), [Dazed boy, his face cut by glass, standing with his injured mother holding rationed rice balls, following the atomic bombing of Nagasaki], 1945 (1387.2005)


Yosuke Yamahata, [Around 6:00 a.m., 1500 meters from epicenter of blast, men carry a body while searching for survivors amid ruins, following dropping of atomic bomb on Nagasaki], 1945 (1390.2005)


Yosuke Yamahata, 2,500 meters from epicenter, civilians flee and search for survivors, following dropping of atomic bomb on Nagasaki, 1945 (1388.2005)


Yosuke Yamahata, [Survivors of atomic blast walking along road amid ruims of city, looking for relatives, following dropping of atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan.], 1945 (1392.2005)


United States Government, The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division: The Effects of Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, June 30, 1946 (2006.13.1)

NAGASAKI… “like a graveyard with not a tombstone standing…” Nagasaki Prefecture Report.


United States Government, The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Physical Damage Division: The Effects of Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, June 30, 1946 (2006.13.1)

“…the power of the atom bomb is beyond belief…”
Nagasaki Prefecture Report.

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Hiroshima: “Intense heat”


Unidentified Photographer, [Severely damaged printing presses, Chugoku Shimbun Building, Hiroshima], October 28, 1945 (2006.1.357)

Building 50: Chugoku Shimbun Building. 5I, GZ3000. First story of reinforced concrete Building 50. Shows newspaper printing press severely damaged by fire which gutted building. Hiroshima: Ground Zero, 1945, p. 109.


Unidentified Photographer, November 5, 1945 [Charred boy’s jacket found near Hiroshima City Hall], (2006.1.406)

6H, GZ3300. Shows partly burned coat of boy who was in open near City Hall [Building 28] 3,800 feet from AZ. Hiroshima: Ground Zero, 1945, p. 96.


Unidentified Photographer, [Steel stairs warped by intense heat from burned book stacks, Asano Library, Hiroshima], November 15, 1945 (2006.1.567)

Building 27. Asano Library. 5H, GZ2400. Open steel stairs in east section of Building 27 through which fire spread up and down from third story. Note warping of steel by intense heat from burned book stacks. Hiroshima: Ground Zero, 1945, p. 81.


Unidentified Photographer, [Flash-burned asphalt on Bridge 20 over the Motoyasu River, Hiroshima], October 26, 1945 (2006.1.422)

6G, GZ2900. Flash burn on asphalt on Bridge 20, 3,500 feet south from AZ. Shadow was cast by man.

The roadway was burned except where the surface was shielded by human footprints and the bridge posts, leaving ghostly shadows. Hiroshima: Ground Zero, 1945, p. 87.


United States Government, The United States Strategic Bombing Survey: Physical Damage Division, The Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, Volume II, May 1947, pp.96-97 (2011.23.2)

Definition. The zero point may be defined as the point of detonation of the atomic bomb. The point had location in plan and elevation, inasmuch as the bomb burst in the air. Throughout this report the ground location of the point immediately under the burst is designated as ground zero, abbreviated to GZ, and the actual point of detonation in the air is designated as air zero, abbreviated to AZ. Hiroshima: Ground Zero, 1945, p. 18.

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Hiroshima: “Devastated by blast and fire”


Unidentified Photographer, [Burned-over landscape north of ground zero in the vicinity of Hiroshima Castle], October 31, 1945 (2006.1.278)

4H, GZ3200. Looking southeast from Hiroshima Castle. Shows group of unburned blast-destroyed, combustible buildings 3,200 feet northeast from GZ (3,700 feet from AZ) in old castle grounds. Surrounding area completely devastated by blast and fire. Hiroshima: Ground Zero, 1945,p. 115.


Unidentified Photographer, [Ruins of Geibi Bank Company, Kyobashi branch, Hiroshima], November 12, 1945 (2006.1.158)

5J, GZ5900. Looking northeast at Building 110, the roof of which was structually damaged by blast. Note bent fire shutters on windows; open nonautomatic fire door (combustible building adjoined). Hiroshima: Ground Zero, 1945,p. 165.


Unidentified Photographer, [Blast-damaged Motomachi Water Station and bicycles, Hiroshima Water Department], November 19, 1945 (2006.1.367)

Building 63. 5H, GZ1800. Motomachi Water Station, Hiroshima Water Department. Building N, 1,800 feet east of GZ, looking north. A steel frame, noncombustible repair shop structurally damaged by blast. Drill press and lathe seriously damaged by fire in combustible floor and contents. Note rubber tires and bicycles burned. Hiroshima: Ground Zero, 1945,p. 71.


Unidentified Photographer, [Superficially blast-damaged stell-frame with fire-damaged tools, Isudashiki Pump Factory, Hiroshima], November 19, 1945 (2006.1.368)

Building 83, AKA Building P: Isudashiki Pump Factory. 4G, GZ3300. Building P, 3,300 feet northwest of GZ, looking east. A steel frame, combustible, light-engineering shop superficially damaged by blast. No damage to machine tools by blast or debris. Serious damage to all machines by fire in combustible debris and wood floor. Entire congested area burned over. Hiroshima: Ground Zero, 1945,p. 105.


United States Government, The United States Strategic Bombing Survey: Physical Damage Division, The Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, Volume II, May 1947, pp.96-97 (2011.23.2)

Definition. The zero point may be defined as the point of detonation of the atomic bomb. The point had location in plan and elevation, inasmuch as the bomb burst in the air. Throughout this report the ground location of the point immediately under the burst is designated as ground zero, abbreviated to GZ, and the actual point of detonation in the air is designated as air zero, abbreviated to AZ. Hiroshima: Ground Zero, 1945,p. 18.

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