Security and the Right to Photograph

Added security of those entering the country. ©Todd Bigelow

Rather good timing for this refresher from the ACLU. Many of my students at Cal State University, Northridge and UCLA ask questions about where they can legally take photographs. My standard response is that if you are photographing from a public location and shooting images easily seen from such a location, then you’re good.

One result of 9/11 being explored by media during the week long lead-up to the 10 year anniversary is the added security in our society. Few will argue that added security is a good thing, but photographers and law enforcement have had many run ins over the decade since the terrorist attacks that clearly show a pattern of increasing harassment of photographers working within their constitutional right (you know, the 1st Amendment and all).

Give this link a look over. It’s a worthy refresher on the right to photograph in public:

When you’re done with that, give NPR a listen as they have a frightening report about surveillance in the Mall of America that illustrates a drastic change in surveillance of Americans following 9/11.


My Time with US/Mexico Border Rancher Robert Maupin

Bob Maupin (r) patrols his ranch, at dusk in eastern San Diego, for undocumented immigrants.

The Los Angeles Times profiled a US/Mexico border rancher today on the top of the front page. I know the man well.

Close to 20 yrs ago I became somewhat obsessed as a photojournalist with the US/Mexico border. Much of that was because of the work done by LA Times photographer Don Bartletti, now a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist. After spending time along the border in San Diego I noticed a new migrant trend and followed my instinct by heading nearly 100 miles east into the rugged mountains dotted by small towns and fiercely independent people. What I subsequently discovered was a world where people like Robert Maupin, the subject of today’s LA Time’s feature, were being overwhelmed in sheer numbers by undocumented immigrants crossing their border properties. After a while, Bob Maupin let me start to document his own border patrol. The numbers have changed, but a recent trip back to do some more shooting revealed that Bob still patrols and repairs his cut fence.

I worked on this personal project for over a year and the NY Times Sunday Magazine eventually published a three page spread. After that, many media outlets contacted Bob and requested interviews to profile his personal border patrol. Is it vigilantism? .

Will the migrant trend come full circle now that Arizona is cracking down even more fiercely with controversial laws and National Guard troops? Time will tell, but one thing is for certain. Bob is always armed.

Speaking of Arizona. Their latest attempt at driving undocumented immigrants out of the state is to pursue a new law that strips American citizenship from anyone born in Arizona to undocumented immigrants. What’s the problem with such a pursuit? Simply the 14th amendment clearly states “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.

Alma Stauth, in white, at her baby shower. Alma is an undocumented immigrant who was brought here as a toddler.

Now the state of Arizona wants to go further and change the Constitution. After SB1070 which will result in a violation of civil rights and a ban on ethnic studies in the state’s schools, it should come as no surprise that Arizona want’s to rewrite the US Constitution. Good luck………

1200 Troops to US/Mexico Border

Undocumented migrants gather along the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego, California before attempting to cross into the US.

President Obama put immigration back on the front burner by announcing today that he’s sending 1200 National Guard troops to the US/Mexico border in an effort to stem drug and migrant smuggling.

Coming weeks after Arizona forced the administration’s hand by implementing a racially charged law requiring all immigrants to carry papers proving they’re in the country legally, President Obama looks to be taking the fight to the Republicans in a effort to show he’s tough on immigration too.

Will the added enforcement put a crimp in smuggling? Probably in the short run, but history has proven that as long as there is a desire to seek a better life, or a desire from a drug hungry society, the suppliers will always find a way to fill the demand.

As ingrained as politics is in the immigration debate, it remains to be seen if the move to place National Guard troops on the border is the first step in a concerted effort at reform or a way to appease the right. Any reform, as the President has indicated, will have to encompass a means to deal with the millions of undocumented already in the country.

Vigilantes on the US/Mexico Border

Vigilantes Patrol US-Mexico Border

Story on NPR’s site today tells the tale of the increasing violence along the US/Mexico border as drug cartels battle for control of the border region. Sad, but as much press as this has been getting, the drug AND migrant smuggling problem has been going on for decades. True, cartel related killings are at unprecedented levels, but nevertheless I photographed the fear and vigilante patrols over ten years ago in border towns stretching from Texas to California.

US/Mexico border rancher discovers a dead dog in a bag he believes was left by drug smugglers as a message to not watch them.

One day while shooting a story for the NY Times Sunday Magazine in Eagle Pass, Texas, I photographed a border rancher patrolling his property that sits along the Rio Grande river, the dividing line for Mexico and the US. As we bumped our way down a dusty road in his old pickup truck, rifle and pistol in the cab, he stopped as he came along a bag in the middle of the road. He had just finished telling me of a recent encounter with drug smugglers who shot at him from across the river as he stood with binoculars in hand. Ambling from his truck, Bud Natus stretched his foot out and gingerly nudged the bag open with his boot. Inside was a dead puppy. Bud took it, flung it back toward Mexico and got back in his truck. He took it as a sign from smugglers that they weren’t playing games.

On another occasion, I was in the Arizona border town of Douglas shooting a story for TIME magazine about a rancher named Roger Barnett who was known to patrol his property with an assault rifle on the lookout for anyone coming north from the Mexican town of Agua Prieta. Roger would stand atop a knoll and peer through binoculars, track fresh footprints and essentially do the job of sworn federal officers in the US Border Patrol. Barnett figured he was on his own property, so any detention must be legal. He was tired of the drugs and human trafficking making it’s way across his property and was determined to help put an end to it.

Not far from where Barnett began to make national headlines, another figure in the increasing vigilante movement  emerged. Chris Simcox, a Los Angeles transplant, took his patriotic fervor and issued a “Call to Arms” for local citizens in the local paper. Shooting for a couple days for Newsweek magazine, I spent time with Simcox and a hodgepodge of citizens as they roamed the isolated desert between Tombstone, Arizona and the border. With sidearms on the hip and radios in the pockets, the group spread out under a full moon and soon encountered a group of undocumented migrants. Surrounding them and using high powered flashlights, the vigilantes held the migrants until the Border Patrol arrived.

Everyone knows San Diego as a hot spot for illegal border crossings. But the eastern region, nearly a hundred miles from the one time wide open border in San Ysidro, was home to a highly organized and effective vigilante patrol. Initiated by a border rancher whose family has lived smack on the border for generations, this patrol was heavily armed and used technology such as Night Vision Goggles, Vietnam error ground sensors and sophisticated weapons while on patrol. Bob Maupin, as he often told me, never had a problem with migrants coming through years ago. A friendly and independent man, Bob explains that in the old days the migrants would simple take a drink of water from a hose and close the gates as they went north. But all that changed as a flood of traffic began coming through his property while trying to avoid the government sanctioned Operation Gatekeeper to the west. With thread bare support from the Border Patrol, Bob and a handful of residents took up arms and began patrolling his property. Anyone caught was promptly turned over to the Border Patrol. Drugs continue to make their way through Bob’s remote ranch and he is never unarmed as a result.

A Mobile App for Migrants

Cemetery where undocumented migrants who have died crossing the border are buried.

I’ve spent a lot of time along the US/Mexico border, photographing in towns dotting the 2000 mile boundary from Eagle Pass, Texas to Imperial Beach, CA and places in between. Places where the desert meets the mountains, where sand and scrub brush can bake a body in hours during the summer or freeze it in hours during the winter.

In other words, the trek made each year by thousands of migrants north to the US can be insanely perilous. Just reaching the border from places in Central and South America is dangerous enough, but the final journey to Estados Unidos in the last fifteen years has been a lesson in grave risk. The idea behind the 1994 government crackdown known as Operation Gatekeeper was to shut down the border’s most porous areas. In that regard, places like Imperial Beach and San Ysidro, long hotspots for crossing illegally, were effectively shut down. But of course the problem was not solved in any way. Migrants, determined to find a better life as they have for generations, ventured into the vast, rugged terrain of eastern San Diego County where it took days to cross the mountains and desert. Deaths skyrocketed as migrants were ill prepared for the summer temperatures and frigid winter storms. But still they came.

Several years ago I photographed a story for People magazine that chronicled a group of volunteers who placed water in the remote desert between Eastern San Diego and Yuma, Arizona. Large water containers were strategically placed along known migration routes in an effort to save lives. Tall flags flapped overhead to alert migrants to the water. Regardless of one’s position on the immigration debate, it’s simply humane to provide water in an area known for migrant deaths from dehydration.

John Hunter places water barrel in a remote area along the US/Mexico border to help prevent migrant deaths.

Now a group of University of California, San Diego professors have developed a cell phone application that provides GPS coordinates for the migrants to locate water on their journey. According to a LA Times opinion piece, the professors, along with a colleague from the University of Michigan, developed the mobile application and nongovernmental, Mexican organizations plan to install it on phones that will be given to migrants embarking on their trek north.

I agree with the Times position. I’ve been in the desert heat. Once migrants are on the path inside the country, it’s humane to leave water for them. But it’s a different story to provide a false sense of security before they leave. What if the migrants decide they don’t need to carry water because they will follow the route to find the caches? What if the water caches are empty, damaged or tainted? What if the caches have been removed or relocated? There are too many scenarios that could end in disaster and that’s what needs to be avoided to begin with.

More effort needs to be put toward preventing the often deadly journey through remote regions. A mobile application like this does more harm than good to the very people it intends to aid.

More Migrants Try to Enter US by Sea

Authorities again detained a boat off the San Diego coast that carried 23 suspected undocumented immigrants early Friday, Feb 5th, according to the Los Angeles Times. The boat was intercepted by a Coast Guard cutter on patrol nearly seven miles from land. In mid January another boat capsized while trying to come ashore at Torrey Pines State Beach in the northern part of the county which resulted in fatalities.

The migrants are loaded up in small pangas in Mexico and navigate mostly at night miles from shore without navigational equipment in hopes of entering California undetected. Recent security measures, including multiple layers of fencing, remote cameras and sensors and lighting, has made illegal entry by land very difficult and prompted more smugglers to try their luck ferrying their human cargo by sea.

I accompanied a Customs and Border Protection, the enforcement arm of the Dept of Homeland Security responsible for the nation’s borders, marine unit last spring. The unit employs high powered speed boats and is equipped with the latest technology for running “lights out” in an attempt to prevent the smugglers from breaching the border by sea. In addition, the CBP uses Black Hawk helicopters and other aircraft to work in tandem with the marine patrols.

To see images, click here

The Border

US Customs & Border Protection marine unit patrols waters near US/Mexico border.

US Customs & Border Protection marine unit patrols waters near US/Mexico border.

I had a recent shoot at the US/Mexico border for TIME that had me thinking about my “early” days shooting along the border. I began venturing down to the border in San Diego in the early 1990’s. Back then it was completely normal to see hundreds of migrants standing just inside the United States along the Tijuana River levy. In broad daylight, no less. They would form small groups, talk amongst themselves with their backpacks laying beside them in the dirt. At that time there was only a single fence that was so easy to climb that rumor had it the fence was installed improperly. Border Patrol vehicles would speed up to the migrants, hardly catching them by surprise, and the groups would scatter quickly back to Mexico. Many times, including once when I was shooting for TIME, the migrants would simply sit on top of the fence and exchange good-natured barbs with the agents .

US Border Patrol outnumbered at the US/Mexico border fence.

US Border Patrol outnumbered at the US/Mexico border fence.

I don’t want to imply that the agents were not taking their jobs seriously, for they definitely did, but things were altogether different then. The Border Patrol was severely out numbered and they knew it. So they caught as many as they could and generally played the proverbial cat-and-mouse game (right).

Until 1994 and the beginning of the build up to stop illegal immigration.They called it Operation Gatekeeper.

I don’t want to bore anyone reading this with pages devoted to every shoot I did from San Diego to Texas, but trust me when I tell you that I would never have thought that the border would become so difficult to cross that migrants would be taking to the sea like their counterparts in Cuba and Haiti. But that’s exactly what is happening. Nearly 15 years of building fences, installing lights and sensors and placing agents along the nearly 2000 miles of border between the US and Mexico has, to say the least, drastically changed the game. In fact, it’s become so difficult to cross the border that migrants are choosing to hug the bottom of a 15 ft Panga (Mexican fishing boat) with twenty others praying the unreliable outboard gets them to El Norte.

Walking down the boat ramp on a recent Sunday morning hours before the sun would rise, I couldn’t help but think about the changes. I climbed aboard the 39 foot, 1000 horsepower Customs and Border Protection boat for a pretty wild ride. The patrol works in the dark with lights out. Using night vision and instruments for guidance, the CBP agents patrol the waters in tandem with helicopters who call out suspicious boats for the marine unit to stop. But even if a Panga makes it past the Blackhawk’s and the speed boats, they have to avoid the Coast Guard cutters and helicopters. If they’re lucky enough to drift past them as well, one shoreline favored by smugglers seems to be picturesque Torrey Pines State Beach. There you’ll find a Lifeguard-Peace Officer who regularly patrols the beach and fully expects to soon hear a distress call announcing a capsized boat with dozens of migrants in the heavy surf. He has already come across several deserted Pangas in previous months, surmising the successful landing of smugglers and their human cargo.

How times have changed.