Photograph by Carlos Soyos and Adam Ferguson
The Times photographer Adam Ferguson worked with migrants in Mexico who planned to cross the border into the United States to create a series of self-portraits.
June 28, 2021
The life of a migrant at the border waiting for the right moment to cross into the United States is often in flux. The New York Times tried to capture a piece of this uncertain journey by giving people a chance to convey it in their own way.
The Times photographer Adam Ferguson mounted a medium-format camera onto a tripod with a cable release and then stepped back, allowing the migrants to choose the moment to press the button.
Carlos Soyos, above, is just one of the migrants on the Mexican side of the border who agreed to participate. He made his way there from Guatemala City, where he and his wife were struggling to raise a son with a rare genetic condition when their daughter began showing the same symptoms.
Paying for one sick child’s medical treatment on two janitor salaries was hard enough. Worried about their daughter now as well, the couple decided their only hope was the United States, and they chose New York as their destination.
Mr. Soyos’s wife and daughter have already made it across. Now he and their son are awaiting their chance. “It’s been very difficult to be separated,” said Mr. Soyos, who broke down in tears after getting a phone call from his wife.
In just the first five months of this year, U.S. officials encountered around 710,000 migrants near the southwestern border, surpassing prepandemic levels over the same period in 2019 by around 40 percent. The surge has presented the Biden administration with a serious political challenge, and on a recent trip to Guatemala, Vice President Kamala Harris outlined parts of a $4 billion aid package in Central America to try to induce citizens to stay home.
“Do not come,” she said.
But the message is unlikely to be heeded.
On Friday, the vice president, who faced criticism for her comments, made a trip to the border, where she stopped at a processing center in El Paso.
Many migrants head north to flee economic crisis, violence and devastation from natural disasters.
Some, including those The Times encountered, have tried to cross before but have been detained and deported. Now at the border, they are hoping to get a lucky break and eventually be allowed to stay.
Here are some of their portraits — and the stories behind them.
Photograph by Stephany Solano and Adam Ferguson
“He was afraid to be left alone.”
Growing up, Stephany Solano studied computer science and enjoyed walking in her neighborhood park in Guatemala City and swimming with friends in a nearby lake. Life changed drastically when her father developed a chronic kidney illness two years ago.
He lost his job, and Stephany’s mother had to quit her work as a seamstress to take care of him. They lost their home and had to move in with Stephany’s grandparents. They barely got by with the food donated by a local church and their relatives. Stephany had to stop attending school and skip meals to cut down on expenses.
One day the family, tired of their situation, held a meeting. They decided to send Stephany and her mother to the United States to find work. The hardest part was leaving behind her sick father, Stephany said.
“He was afraid to be left alone and was worried something would happen to us on the way,” she said.
Photograph by Rosa Arévalo and Adam Ferguson
“I couldn’t risk my daughter’s life.”
Rosa Arévalo said she decided to travel to the United States against the advice of relatives to protect her daughter, Kendra. Back in Guatemala, Ms. Arévalo had struggled to make a living selling tamales and clothes on the streets of her small town. Her sister in Maryland sent money to help make ends meet, but the transfers dried up in the pandemic.
Life became even harder when her partner left her after getting into a money dispute with a local gang. Soon, gang emissaries came knocking on Ms. Arévalo’s door to collect the debt. They threatened to kill her daughter if she didn’t pay.
“My sister told me not to come, because life is also difficult there” in America, Ms. Arévalo said. “But I had to come. I couldn’t risk my daughter’s life.”
Ms. Arévalo was deported back to Mexico after her first attempt to cross the border. She has now found a cleaning job in Mexico while she waits for the next opportunity to cross.
Photograph by Linfir Estuardo Lopez and Adam Ferguson
Help awaits in Oklahoma. But first they have to get there.
All that Linfir López and his wife, Astrid Baten, brought from Guatemala were a Bible, personal documents and the clothes on their backs. They sold the rest of their possessions to pay the smugglers.
They went to search for work. There were no jobs back home, no house to call their own.
They tried crossing the border once but were caught by Border Patrol and sent back to Mexico. They said they had no choice but to keep trying until they reached Oklahoma, where they have friends who can help them.
Photograph by Gertrudis Ortega Ramírez and Adam Ferguson
“I want to use the legal system to recover my girls.”
Gertrudis Ortega has had a hard life. At 14, she was forced to marry into a criminal clan that essentially ran Ometepec, her town in southern Mexico.
Soon after the marriage, she entered the United States illegally to join her abusive husband. She endured 18 years of beatings as she raised her two daughters. Eventually, she was deported to Mexico when the police caught up with her husband’s drug dealings.
Back in Ometepec, she met Victor Castro, a welder, and decided to start a new life. But her past kept catching up with her. Her former husband’s powerful family harassed Ms. Ortega and threatened to kill her if she tried to get custody of her children.
When she became pregnant, she and Mr. Castro decided to flee to Texas. Their child, Betani, was born on the Mexican side of the border. In the U.S., Ms. Ortega hopes to get the justice she was denied in Mexico, and reunite with her teenage daughters, who were both born in America and are citizens.
“I want to use the legal system to recover my girls,” she said.
Photograph by Amy Rose Henríquez and Adam Ferguson
“I’ve seen a lot of friends killed.”
Amy Rose Henríquez came to the border to be who she wanted to be. Her family in El Salvador was loving and accepted her sexual identity. But her neighborhood was poor, and she often experienced violence and transphobia in the highly socially conservative Central American country.
“I’ve seen a lot of friends killed, both for being the way they are and for not wanting to join the gangs,” she said.
She left school to help her family, working long hours at the till of a fast-food restaurant. But it never seemed to be enough; she barely managed to pay the bills.
In her yearlong journey to the United States, Ms. Henríquez, a transgender woman, endured hardship and discrimination. But she also saw glimpses of what her life could be.
She built a hostel for the queer community with transgender and gay migrants, and found a job singing at a bar.
“My mother cried because she didn’t want me to leave,” she said. “I told her that I will find my destiny, and then we will see each other again.”
Photograph by Mariola Hernández and Adam Ferguson
The smugglers tricked her into believing they had made it.
Mariola Hernández’s relatives sent her money to help her get to the U.S. with her 1-year-old baby, Jasmine, from their small Guatemalan town. The smugglers tricked her into believing they had made it onto U.S. soil. Instead, they were left in a warehouse near Ciudad Juárez at the mercy of gangs and corrupt Mexican officials.
She tried crossing without the smugglers but was caught and sent back to Mexico. She has been sleeping in church shelters with her daughter since.
Photograph by Teresa de Jesús Hernández and Adam Ferguson
“He said he will kill me when he gets out. ”
All Teresa de Jesús Hernández had with her when she crossed into Mexico on her way to the U.S. border were her 7-year-old daughter María, a cellphone and $15. She spent the rest of her money on “coyotes” — smugglers paid to ferry migrants across the border. She hoped to escape her abusive husband and join her aunt in New York.
He was serving jail time in El Salvador for domestic violence, and as the date of his release approached, Ms. Hernández began to fear for her life. “He said he will kill me when he gets out,” she said. “That’s why I left.”
Photograph by Doris Lara and Adam Ferguson
“I am scared the gangs will find me.”
Doris Lara got on the road with her 4-year-old son after back-to-back hurricanes destroyed their home in Honduras last year. The journey nearly killed them.
On the way to Mexico, smugglers locked them in a truck without water, making her son sick from dehydration. She said she was kidnapped when she got to the Mexican city of Puebla by rival smugglers, who demanded that her husband who had already made it to the U.S. pay a ransom. She didn’t wait for it to be paid and instead said she escaped when her guard fell asleep.
Ms. Lara said she tried crossing the border once but was caught by Border Patrol, fingerprinted and sent back to Mexico. She said she was now only waiting for an opportunity to cross again and join her husband in Kansas City, Mo., before kidnappers catch up with her again.
“I am scared the gangs will find me,” she said.
Photograph by América Yanira López and Adam Ferguson
“I never thought about the dangers that could await us.”
América Yanira López took her photo on the day she and her three children were freed by a cartel after a month of captivity. They were kidnapped while trying to cross the border and kept in a desert shed with other captured migrants while the gangsters negotiated ransom with relatives in the U.S.
Ms. López still had bruises from beatings she endured while a hostage. Her children’s skin was covered with mosquito and scorpion bites, and their bodies were gaunt from diarrhea and vomiting. Penniless and desperate, she said she has no plan. She’s just happy to be alive.
Ms. López came to the border from El Salvador after hearing that the U.S. was letting in mothers with small children. There’s no U.S. policy that grants migrants such rights, but in recent months many families have been given discretionary permission to stay.
She left behind an abusive former husband and economic misery. She pawned her mother’s house to pay a coyote.
She never expected the journey to nearly cost her life.
“The coyote told us it was very easy — that everything was safe, that everything was paid for,” Ms. López said.
“I never thought about the dangers that could await us.”
Photograph by the subject and Adam Ferguson
“I have nowhere to go.”
She left Honduras at a moment’s notice, abandoning her modest business selling clothes and hand-woven baskets. Gang members came to her home in one of Central America’s most violent cities to forcefully recruit her son one evening, putting a gun to her head and vandalizing the house when they didn’t find him.
She called her son and told him not to come home. Get on the first bus heading north, she said. Fearing retribution, she and her family gathered what they could carry and headed for the border, hoping to seek shelter with a relative in New Orleans.
The woman, who requested anonymity because she feared retribution from gang members in Honduras, remains terrified. She constantly worries the criminals will find her at a migrant shelter on the U.S. border.
She had tried crossing into the U.S. once with her children and grandchildren, but Border Patrol caught her, separated her from them and sent her back to Mexico.
“They didn’t listen to my story,” she said. “I have nowhere to go.”
Photograph by Belkiz Quiroz and Adam Ferguson
“To stay in Honduras meant to die from hunger.”
Life was already a struggle for Belkis Quiroz’s family, when Hurricane Eta destroyed their home in Honduras last year. They slept in churches and aid shelters, surviving on donated food.
The hurricane put an end to whatever odd handyman jobs her husband, David Benavides, could still find in the pandemic, leaving them without an income and without prospects.
“To stay in Honduras meant to die from hunger,” Mr. Benavides said. “We didn’t want our son’s future to be the same as ours.”
They sold their motorbike, the family’s only remaining valuable possession, and headed north with their 1-year-old son, Santiago, hitchhiking and dodging kidnappers along the way.
They had tried going to the U.S. in 2019, but got deported. Now they’ll keep trying until they succeed, they said, because they have nothing to go back to.
Photograph by Eduardo Benavides and Adam Ferguson
“The money just didn’t add up when the threats began.”
Eduardo Benavides grew beans, avocado and pineapple with his wife and seven children on his family plot in rural El Salvador. The produce barely brought in $5 a day. It was not enough to keep the children in school, so they joined him in the fields after a year of education.
They worked the fields every day, and took a break only to attend Sunday church service.
When El Salvador’s powerful MS-13 criminal group began demanding in February a $20 monthly protection fee, he realized he could not afford it. He headed to the U.S. border with his wife, his son Jonathan and two of the other youngest children. The children who were old enough to work stayed behind to try their luck on El Salvador’s construction sites.
“Since a child, all I wanted to do is be a farmer and work the land,” Mr. Benavides said. “Suddenly, our poverty made us emigrate, because the money just didn’t add up when the threats began.”