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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