Originally published by USA Today
My assignment for USA TODAY’s ambitious project on the migrant crisis was to cover immigration court in Los Angeles. I knew this would be a tough assignment to visualize as photography and videography are not allowed inside of a federal courthouse.
For the project, the USA TODAY Network wanted to show, not tell, what was happening in real-time. Reporting spanned one week in June and took place across the U.S., Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala. I was one of almost 30 journalists who reported during that week. My assignment: Tell our readers what it’s like to face a judge and ask for asylum in the U.S.
After spending a day getting background from legal representatives at the courthouse in L.A., I learned that the number of asylum cases had grown exponentially, and that more than likely I would not see the same person twice during my week of reporting. I knew every person coming through immigration court had a unique story to tell, I just needed to find the best way to tell it visually.
After a couple of days on the assignment, fellow USA TODAY reporter Jared Weber and I found ourselves at El Rescate, a non-profit that offers legal services for individuals seeking asylum in the United States. That day they were offering walk-in consultations for families looking for asylum in the United States. With the opportunity of being around that many migrant families looking for legal advice in a single day, I asked if I could set up a photo studio in their building to interview and capture portraits of individuals after their consultations.
I received approval for the studio, which consisted of a Fiilex dual power LED light and a grey translucent backdrop that I placed in front of a window in the back room of El Rescate. After their legal consultations, every family had the option to be photographed and interviewed. Many individuals stopped and spoke with us, but some did not want their faces shown.
I had to come up with a creative way of photographing some of these subjects in a way that maintained their anonymity. Jared and I listened to each person as they told us their reasoning for making such a strenuous journey to the United States and the obstacles they faced during their journey.
I chose to shoot the portraits digitally, but also on film with a Hasselblad medium format camera. I then had the film digitally scanned and chose to showcase the film portraits over the digital originals because the film gave the portraits a sense of timelessness.
There was a lot of uncertainty and fear in the voices of the migrants, but also a sense of hope. I wanted the portraits to humanize a broad issue that often renders people as a statistic.
Jeffrey, a native of Honduras, was continuously persecuted for identifying as a member of the LGBT community. After being badly beaten by a Honduras gang known as A team, he migrated to the United States with his son. His journey took two months and along the journey, he stayed in four camps. (Photo: Harrison Hill, USA TODAY Network)
Jose, 51, from Ciudad Real, Guatemala, had heard about gang members extorting businesses in his home country. When he was threatened by several men in his place of work, he went to the police. Once he arrived at the police station, he quickly realized that the police had been behind the whole operation. “One of the guys … took out his knife and he said, ‘Well this is what you’ve earned,'” Jose said. The police proceeded to physically torture him, carving his chest. A large scar is still visible on his chest. Jose said the men also warned him that, if he didn’t pay them thousands of Guatemalan quetzales, they knew where his 13-year-old son Marlon attended school. The father and son left Guatemala, arriving in the United States in May 2017. At the border, the two were apprehended and separated. Jose was taken to New Mexico and Marlon was taken to San Antonio, Texas. They eventually reunited two months later at an alvergue, a privately-run shelter for migrants. Both of them are currently seeking asylum through the Los Angeles Immigration Court. (Photo: Harrison Hill, USA TODAY Network)
Jacqueline, 38, from El Salvador, left home for the United States with only $70 dollars. On her seven-month journey, she was kidnapped by narcos in Mexico and put to work for two and a half months in the city of Champas. She only said escaped with the help of several men from a nearby church. “A miracle from God” was how she summed up her arrival in the United States. In El Salvador, she was a shopkeeper, selling shoes and clothes back home to support her three children. Once a gang began to extort her for money, it was only three months before she had to close her shop. When she fled, she left much of her money with her three children. She said she constantly worries about their safety back home. “I need to bring my kids [here],” Jacqueline said, tears streaming down her face. “I need to work. I need to do something for them.” (Photo: Harrison Hill, USA TODAY Network)
Noemi is from Melchor de Mencos, Guatemala, a city bordering Belize. She said it’s also a prime location for contraband cigar sales between the two countries. She said all six of her brothers were tied up in the business, as was her husband — whom she refers to as such despite the fact they weren’t married. She realized it was time for her to leave Guatemala when her brother-in-law was murdered. Although police tracked down Selvin Ordoñez’s killer, the pain didn’t fade. “It doesn’t just leave kids without giving classes, but rather three kids without their father and a mother and brother suffering,” Noemi said. “Since that day, we couldn’t sleep peacefully.” Her husband left for the United States and, soon after, she followed suit. (Photo: Harrison Hill, USA TODAY Network)
José Antonio, 24, from San Miguel, El Salvador, was repeatedly beaten by gang members injuring him all over his body. The men had tormented him for months. First, they showed up at his place of work, demanding that he pay them. After he changed jobs, they found him again at the new leather store where he worked. For a while, he said his family had to scrape by on $4 a day. Life quickly became unsustainable for Jose Antonio, his wife and his children. He remembers the night when he decided to leave El Salvador vividly. “What do I do?” José Antonio remembers asking himself. “I cried all night seeing what my life was like.” He left his life behind one day in early April and arrived in the United States on May 1, where he sought refuge with a cousin. (Photo: Harrison Hill, USA TODAY Network)
Mira Santos, 45, from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, ran a high school cafeteria, until gang members in the city of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, extorted her. The members left her a notice, saying they would trash her business if she didn’t pay them 1,000 Honduran lempiras — approximately $41 dollars — every Sunday. “It’s extortion but they call it rent,” Santos said. She didn’t believe them at first, and soon after they ransacked her cafeteria. “They took everything they could,” she said. “What they couldn’t take, they destroyed.” (Photo: Harrison Hill, USA TODAY Network)