First Person

The cruel image of ‘border protection’

November 27, 2018
Image courtesy Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon.

On Sunday, November 25, thousands of migrants, most from Central America, tried to enter the San Ysidro Land Port of Entry between Tijuana and San Diego. Along the border wall runs the Tijuana River; the group crossed, and about a hundred turned left, reaching a razor wire fence. There, they turned back toward the bed of the river, where two men tried to dig under the fence. As the rest waited, US Customs and Border Protection officers closed the Port of Entry to all comers and sprayed tear gas into the crowd, including at young children.

At the White House on Monday, Trump said that border agents involved in the incident “were being rushed by some very tough people and they used tear gas.”

But Kim Kyung-Hoon, a Reuters photographer new to the American immigration beat, had been with the travelers for the last 700 miles of their journey, and he captured the suffering of a young Honduran family struggling to escape the tear gas. His photos of a mother and two of her young children have been published worldwide. CJR spoke with Kyung-Hoon on the phone from Tijuana about his experience following the family. His words have been condensed for length and clarity.


I’m Korean, but I’m based in Japan. I’ve been working for Reuters for over 15 years, since 2002. I was assigned by my editor to cover the story of the migrant group. I arrived in Mexico City on November 14th. I met the group that day in Navojoa. There were large numbers, many thousands, moving toward Tijuana.

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On Sunday, the migrants staged a march from their shelter in Tijuana to the borderline. I followed them from their shelter. They were stopped by Mexican police at the bottom of the bridge leading to the entry. The police formed a line to make them stop.

Some of the migrants suddenly started running towards the border wall. They broke around the end of the police line. Others followed, many thousands, running towards the borderline. They reached the bank of the Tijuana River. They climbed down the river bank and crossed—there’s not much water at the moment, it’s not difficult. Then they began to climb the other side.

Kim Kyung-Hoon

When they reached the top of riverbank, most made a right turn and tried to reach the place of entry. A small group of maybe 20 or 30 made a left turn instead. I don’t know why, maybe they could see the border wall, maybe to try to breach it. I just followed them. Soon 100 people gathered there on top of the riverbank. There was razor wire there, and, behind that, US border control members. I followed. The riverbank also had a razor wire fence that went down to ground level of the river. The migrants stood there, walking around.

I saw a couple of men trying to dig out the ground under the fence, one with his bare hands and one with a plastic basket. I checked my pictures later to see what time they were taken. Just one or two minutes after I captured the guys digging, border patrol fired tear gas.

The migrants start running away. The family in the pictures was very close to me then. The woman tried to hold her children with her two hands. They were running away. I checked my pictures later, I took many. At first the one girl was wearing beach shoes, and the the other was barefoot. After they were running, that chaos, the second girl was also barefoot. From the beginning, the girls didn’t wear pants, just diapers. They ran over the muddy field of the river, climbed up the river bank to run towards downtown Tijuana.

I kept shooting and climbing the riverbank. At the top, I found the woman and the girl who lost her shoes. That girl was crying. I can’t speak Spanish, but I saw her gesture to her mother that she had hurt her feet.

We found the family the next morning, my colleagues had been searching for them. They got back to the shelter. That woman has five kids, they are all living in the shelter. They are trying to get to the father living in Louisiana. The two girls wearing diapers in the photos are twins. They are 5 years old.

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Amanda Darrach is a contributor to CJR and a visiting scholar at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.