Over the course of several recent weeks, Getty Images photographer John Moore visited the Imperial Sand Dunes of southern California, Big Bend National Park in West Texas and the Boca Chica State Park, where the Rio Grande flows into the Gulf of Mexico. Moore wasn’t on holiday, but on assignment documenting the full length of the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
Stretching over 1,989 miles, the border is monitored by a wide array of federal agencies. There’s the Office of Field Operations, which regulated ports of entries and border crossings. There’s the Air and Marine Operations, which fly over border areas. There are 20,000 personnel that make up the Border Patrol. And there’s also the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, whose role is to deport undocumented immigrants. As Americans get ready to vote in November, Moore was motivated to capture those many moving pieces.
“With Donald Trump and his intention to build a wall, I thought it was important to show the immense security apparatus the U.S. already has in place,” he tells TIME. (His take on that plan? The wall “is not a realistic answer,” Moore says. “The saying goes, bigger wall equals taller ladders.”)
But, though the election gave him a reason to focus on the project, Moore has been documenting the border on and off for the past six years. “I already had solid contacts, both with U.S. federal agencies and NGOs, so I didn’t have to start this project completely from scratch,” he says. “I reached out to them a few weeks ahead of the trip to set up access at official border crossings and to fly with agents who patrol the border by helicopter, both day and night. On the Mexican side, immigrant rights activists were generous in helping me to photograph deportees, as I wanted to humanize this story as well.”
The fate of undocumented immigrants has been a thorny issue in this year’s election, with the Republican presidential candidate vowing to deport the large majority of them. But, says Moore, the irony of President Obama’s administration’s existing immigration policy “is that while it has pushed a progressive agenda on reforms, it has also deported more people that previous presidents.”
Both presidential candidates have laid out their immigration plans, and Moore says he hopes that after the campaign is over, there will be time to come up with real answers to the questions posed by the border. “There’s a lot of common ground in this country to come up with solutions,” he says. “Immigration and border security are not intractable problems, just big issues.”
Whatever happens, there’s no doubt this issue will remain a high priority in the coming months and years—and as it evolves, Moore will be ready to go back to the border.
John Moore is a staff photographer at Getty Images.