A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, Texas on June 12, 2018. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents before being sent to a processing center for possible separation.
John Moore—Getty Images

‘All I Wanted to Do Was Pick Her Up.’ How a Photographer at the U.S.-Mexico Border Made an Image America Could Not Ignore

"This one was tough for me. As soon as it was over, they were put into a van. I had to stop and take deep breaths," Getty photographer John Moore said
June 19, 2018

John Moore has been photographing immigrants and the hardship and heartbreak of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border for years — but this time, he said, something is different.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for Getty Images said the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents — part of its “zero tolerance” stance toward people who illegally cross into the U.S. — has changed everything about enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border and resulted in a level of despair for immigrants that Americans can no longer ignore.

“It’s a very different scene now,” he said. “I’m almost positive these families last week had no idea they’d be separated from their children.”

Moore’s image last week of a 2-year-old Honduran girl crying as a U.S. Border Patrol agent patted down her mother has become a symbol of the human cost — and many critics say cruelty — of President Donald Trump’s hard line on immigration. The crying girl has become the face of the family separation policy, which has been criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike.

“When the officer told the mother to put her child down for the body search, I could see this look in the little girl’s eyes,” Moore told TIME. “As soon as her feet touched the ground she began to scream.”

Moore said the girl’s mother had a weariness in her eyes as she was stopped by Border Patrol agents. The father of three said his years of experience did not inoculate him from feeling intense emotions as he watched agents allowed the mother to pick up her child and loaded them both into a van. But, he said, he knew he had to keep photographing the scene.

“This one was tough for me. As soon as it was over, they were put into a van. I had to stop and take deep breaths,” he said. “All I wanted to do was pick her up. But I couldn’t.”

More than 2,000 children have been taken away from their parents since April, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced at “zero tolerance” policy that refers all cases of illegal entry at the border for prosecution. The Trump administration has said Border Patrol agents separate children from parents because children cannot be locked up for the crimes of their mothers and fathers.

A Honduran mother holds her two-year-old as U.S. Border Patrol as agents review their papers near the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, Texas on June 12, 2018. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents before being sent to a processing center for possible separation.
John Moore—Getty Images
A U.S. Border Patrol spotlight shines on a terrified mother and son from Honduras as they are found in the dark near the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, Texas on June 12, 2018.
John Moore—Getty Images
U.S. Border Patrol agents detain a group of Central American asylum seekers near the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, Texas on June 12, 2018.
John Moore—Getty Images

Moore has followed immigrant families and enforcement efforts since 2014 and recently published a book of some of his most stirring photographs, Undocumented: Immigration and the Militarization of the United States-Mexico Border. He said despite the tough new policy, immigrants are not likely to lose the determination that drives them to make the dangerous journey to the United States.

“It’s been very easy for Americans to ignore over the years the desperation that people have to have a better life,” Moore said. “They often leave with their children with their shirts on their backs.”

A boy from Honduras watches a movie at a detention facility run by the U.S. Border Patrol in McAllen, Tex. on Sept. 8, 2014.
John Moore—Getty Images

Footage released Monday of a detention facility where families arrested at the border and children taken from their parents are held echo a photo Moore took in 2014 of a Honduran child watching Casper in the same facility, alone except for a guard keeping watch. That photo, taken at the same detention center in McCallen, Texas where children are now being grouped inside cages, has stayed with Moore over the years.

While he is not sure if that boy was an unaccompanied minor or what happened to him, he said many of the other children at the facility were without their parents. “That picture is still haunting for me.”

Most of the photos below come from Moore’s 2018 book, published by powerHouse Books.

Families attend a memorial service for two boys who were kidnapped and killed in San Juan Sacatepequez, Guatemala on Feb. 14, 2017. More than 2,000 people walked in a funeral procession for Oscar Armando Top Cotzajay, 11, and Carlos Daniel Xiqin, 10 who were abducted walking to school Friday morning when they were abducted.
John Moore—Getty Images
Sonia Morales massages the back of her son Jose Issac Morales, 11, at the door of their one-room home in San Pedro Sula, Honduras on Aug. 20, 2017. The mother of three said that her son's spinal deformation began at age four, but has never been able to afford the $6,000 surgery to correct his spinal condition. The boy's father, Issac Morales, 30, said he tried to immigrate to the U.S. in 2016 to work and send money home but was picked up by U.S. Border Patrol officers in the Arizona desert and deported back to Honduras.
John Moore—Getty Images
An Indigenous family walks from Guatemala into Mexico after illegally crossing the border at the Suchiate River in Talisman, Mexico on Aug. 1, 2013.
John Moore—Getty Images
Undocumented immigrant families walk before being taken into custody by Border Patrol agents near McAllen, Texas on July 21, 2014.
John Moore—Getty Images
Families of Central American immigrants, including Lorena Arriaga, 27, and her son Jason Ramirez, 7, from El Salvador, turn themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents after crossing the Rio Grande River from Mexico to Mission, Texas on Sept. 8, 2014.
John Moore—Getty Images
Immigrants from Central America wait to be taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents in Roma, Texas on August 17, 2016.
John Moore—Getty Images
U.S. Border Patrol agents take undocumented immigrants into custody after capturing them after they crossed Rio Grande from Mexico into Texas near Sullivan City, Texas on Aug. 18, 2016.
John Moore—Getty Images
Undocumented immigrants are led after being caught and handcuffed by Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico border in Weslaco, Texas on April 13, 2016.
John Moore—Getty Images
Women and children sit in a holding cell at a U.S. Border Patrol processing center after being detained by agents near the U.S.-Mexico border near McAllen, Texas on Sept. 8, 2014.
John Moore—Getty Images
Women and children wait in a holding cell at a U.S. Border Patrol processing center after being detained by agents near the U.S.-Mexico border near McAllen, Texas on Sept. 8, 2014.
John Moore—Getty Images
A girl from Central America rests on thermal blankets at a detention facility run by the U.S. Border Patro in McAllen, Texasl on Sept. 8, 2014.
John Moore—Getty Images
Donated clothing await immigrants at the Catholic Sacred Heart Church Immigrant Respite Center from McAllen, Texas on Aug. 15, 2016.
John Moore—Getty Images
A detained Mexican immigrant (L) visits with his wife and children at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility in Florence, Ariz on July 30, 2010.
John Moore—Getty Images
Immigrants from Central America await transport from the U.S. Border Patrol in Roma, Texas on Aug. 17, 2016.
John Moore—Getty Images
Central American immigrant families depart ICE custody, pending future immigration court hearings in McAllen, Texas on June 11, 2018.
John Moore—Getty Images

Correction (Posted June 19): The original version of this story misstated what happened to the girl in the photo after she was taken from the scene. The girl was not carried away screaming by U.S. Border Patrol agents; her mother picked her up and the two were taken away together.