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Haunting Photos of Midnight Crossings at the US/Mexico Border During the 1980s

Haunting Photos of Midnight Crossings at the US/Mexico Border During the 1980s

American photographer Ken Light looks back at his time at the US/Mexico border in the 1980s when The Border Patrol began hunting migrants in the dead of night.

Over a period of four years, the Trump administration issued more than 400 executive actions curtailing immigration to the United States, a nation founded by peoples seeking to escape persecution in their native lands. Under Trump, the United States/Mexico border came under heavy assault, as he has spent more than $2 billion to erect a wall along the 2,000 miles that divide the two nations. 

After establishing a policy of family separation at the border, U.S. government agencies claimed to “lose track” of some 545 migrant children. Other children were locked in cages, while those born on US soil under the DACA program had their citizenship revoked until the Supreme Court overturned White House policy.

6/2/1985 San Ysidro, California ©Ken Light

On January 20, 2021, his first day in office, President Joe Biden immediately got to work, signing six executive actions to undo the damage the Trump administration wrought. A new report also reveals President Biden and other Democrats received more campaign money from leading border security and immigration prison corporations than Trump and fellow Republicans during the 2020 election season. According to the report by the Transnational Institute, American Friends Service Committee and Mijente, Biden received over $5 million from border security executives.

Biden paused deportations, halted construction of the border wall, withdrew the “Muslim Ban,” safeguarded the DACA program and promises to end deportations. The Biden Administration however will not abolish ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, whose agents have been at the center of the Trump regime’s anti-immigration policies. In many cities, ten-year contracts with ICE were just renewed. 

“I realized this is one of the great stories of the twentieth century. The massive immigration would change the demographics of America.”

How Did We Get Here?

In the late 1970s, American photographer Ken Light began documenting agricultural workers across the United States, creating a series of images later published as With These Hands (Pilgrim Press, 1986). “The more I traveled the more I began to see undocumented workers. Many were living in the fields for fear of being apprehended,” he says.

“At the time, a lot of newspapers in California were writing stories about the ‘Brown Invasion’ because the immigration numbers were incredible. I realized this is one of the great stories of the twentieth century. The massive immigration would change the demographics of America.”

3/29/1986 San Ysidro, California © Ken Light

Back then The Border Patrol was radically underfunded. Agents drove around in broken-down trucks with holes in the floor, and they kept helicopters for visiting Congressmen, noting they didn’t have enough fuel to use it otherwise. Agents used typewriters to keep records, but there was no central database to keep tabs on the arrests of migrants at the border. 

Between 1983-1987, Light traveled alongside US Border Patrol over three to four days from 4pm to 7am as they combed the Otay Mesa, in the San Diego area, searching for migrants making their way into the country under the cover of night. His gripping photographs were recently published in Midnight La Frontera (TBW Books).

Stalking the Desert in the Dead of Night

“Border Patrol was completely open. Their stance was journalists covering this story could only benefit them by making the public aware this was a problem because they were so underfunded. They had broken down trucks and they still were using typewriter. There was no database for their records.”

While most photographers would shoot at dusk then leave before night fell, Light chose to shoot at night because that’s when many of the captures were made. Working under pitch-black conditions, Light preset his Hasselblad camera to focus in the immediate foreground, the only illumination made the moment his flash went off. 

 6/1/1985  San Ysidro, California ©Ken Light

“In those days, it was ‘catch and release.’ The agents would fill out a form in the field, drive the migrants to the station, put them on a bus, drive them down to the fence at Tijuana, and push them through. When I first started, the agents apprehended groups of 15-20 people. They would tell them to sit down and they would. By the time I finished photographing in ’87, it was the opposite experience – people would run in 20 different directions.”

As Light began showing the work, people were impressed but he sensed they didn’t understand the story behind the images. He traveled to Mexico to visit the villages to see where people were coming from and why they left, then went to San Diego, Los Angeles, and Fresno to look at where they ended up for To the Promised Land (Aperture, 1988).

3/29/1986 San Ysidro, California ©Ken Light

History Repeats Itself

When Trump began slandering Mexicans during his 2016 Presidential campaign, Light decided to revisit these photographs, most of which have never been seen before. “Trump was talking about these people coming to the United States: the gardeners, the farm workers, the people in the meat packing plants. They are the essential workers that we ignore,” he says. 

“This moment is a repeat of the 80s; it’s not a new story. I wanted to put together a body of work so people can see the desperation, hardship, and struggle of people who want a better life ­— and to make a record for people whose family members had this experience generations ago. Maybe they don’t hear about it because it’s too traumatic to tell the story of coming at night and being hunted.” 

By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.

Ken Light photographing on the border, San Ysidro, California, 1983

Ken Light: Midnight La Frontera
TBW Books
Book available here.

A portion of this essay was previously published at Huck Online on July 29, 2020.

6/1/1985 San Ysidro, California © Ken Light

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