Nation & World

A look at the United States border crisis that's been years in the making

A boy from El Salvador breaks into tears as he is detained in McAllen, Texas, in 2017. CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges
A boy from El Salvador breaks into tears as he is detained in McAllen, Texas, in 2017. CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges
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In late June 2017, I went to southern Texas to get a closer look at the border. I started in the town of McAllen, where so many immigrants end up after crossing the river. While there I hoped to get a good sense of the town and its people, but as I explored, it didn’t feel like I was even in the United States; almost all the radio stations were in Spanish, and most restaurants were Latino. It felt like one of my trips to Mexico.

I began with a ride-along with Marlene Castro, a supervisory Border Patrol agent for the Rio Grande Valley sector. Castro told me it was unlikely we would see anyone attempting to cross in the middle of a hot summer day because the majority of people do it at night. But then, as she turned the car around a bend, we saw two women, one holding a baby; they saw the patrol car and started sprinting away. I watched as the baby nearly fell out of the woman’s arm. Castro started yelling to them in Spanish to stop running and that it was okay. When they did, Castro gave them water and filled the baby’s bottle. A few minutes later, another agent arrived and questioned the women further. Castro let me ask the women a few questions as the agent stepped away briefly. I found out that Karina Lopez, the 23-year-old mother carrying her almost 2-year-old daughter, and her 16-year-old niece were from the town of Jutiapa in Guatemala, which borders El Salvador.

The agents asked them to place all their belongings - including shoelaces and hair ties - in a plastic bag. This seemed to be a normal practice for the agents, but when Lopez began removing her toddler’s hair ties, the girl started crying. During more questioning, the mother put down her daughter, who dropped her water bottle. I picked it up and handed it back to her. It wasn’t long before she was in tears again, though. She hugged her mother’s legs as agents continued to question them.

After I took a few more photos, I had to put my camera down and walk away because my eyes were also filled with tears. This was my first time documenting a border crossing. It’s different when you’re there. You’re a part of it. I sympathized with Lopez and her family, in part, because I came to the United States as an immigrant and refugee from Iraq. My family, too, fled their country. I knew all about the hard journey, the hope for a better life.

As the women were taken away, we continued our ride and ran into more undocumented immigrants. Most were children, but they did not run when the van approached them. Right away Castro gave them water as more agents arrived.

A few days later, we drove to Brownsville, at the southernmost tip of the border, and spoke to Pamela Taylor, a landowner on the border and a naturalized U.S. citizen from England; she met her Texas-born husband when he served overseas in the U.S. military. A wall already ran outside her property, albeit one that had huge gaps in it. She said the wall hadn’t stopped illegal immigration or the drug cartels. She made a habit of leaving water outside her home for people passing by her property after crossing the border.

Almost a year after I took these photos, other images from the border would galvanize citizens and politicians across the country to speak out against the Trump administration’s practice of separating undocumented families. While the separation of children from parents was new, the story of desperate families trying to enter the United States was not. One thing that has now changed, however, is that more Americans have been moved to act on behalf of these families - to demand action. Whether or not true change comes, it will be crucial for journalists to continue to be at the border, to see the events firsthand - and to share stories and pictures with the world.

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Georges is a Washington Post staff photographer.

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