On Nov. 20, 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama announced a series of executive actions to reform immigration laws in the United States. These new actions will protect up to five million illegal immigrants from deportation, expand border security, and create new programs to promote citizenship and legal immigration.
Photographer Kirsten Luce has been documenting both sides of the U.S.–Mexico border since 2006, when she became a staff photographer at The Monitor in the border town of McAllen, Texas. After moving to New York City in 2008, Luce had a shift in perspective and started to look at immigration issues from a national point of view, she says.
Earlier this year, immigration came back at the forefront of the national debate when a massive influx of unaccompanied minors and families crossed the border. “When I first started seeing the news in May and June,” Luce says, “I thought I was aware of how busy the border has been for a couple of years [and that] reports might be exaggerating things. I was wrong.”
Luce immediately went to Texas, embedding herself with local law enforcement. They encountered two groups of 12 women and children within an hour, and then another group several minutes later. “Normally, you go on a ride along, [and] you don’t see anything for a couple of hours,” says Luce. “You might see one group the whole time… [This time] it was surreal.”
And while news organizations usually had little interest for Luce’s work on immigration, suddenly “people wanted whatever pictures they could get from the Rio Grande Valley to try to understand this space that has become the focal point of the national debate on immigration,” she says. Since this summer, Luce has been able to publish every story that she has produced, with other journalists also reaching out to her for advice on how to work in the area.
Luce’s comprehensive body of work covers diverse aspects of immigration on both sides of the border – from illegal border crossing to border patrol agents, stash houses where migrants are kept on arrival in the US. She is well aware that, as a journalist, such access is hard to come by. Over the years, Luce has maintained good relations with several local law enforcement agencies and they have grown to trust her. And while she is not always allowed to ask migrants about their stories, Luce appreciates the law enforcement officers that give her a chance to document the situation while they do their jobs.
“My intention is to contribute to a dialogue on the current immigration system,” Luce says. She has seen the complex narrative of immigration evolve for years, and stresses the importance of understanding this fluid situation and the people it affects on both sides of the border.
Kirsten Luce is a freelance photographer based in New York City.