I search the photo of these desperately poor people I photographed in the summer of 2015 at the Suchiate River at the border between Guatemala and Mexico. None of them, from any outward appearance at least, seemed to be rapists or murderers. None of them seemed to be trying to steal jobs or anything from me.
That Central American family, maybe from Guatemala or El Salvador, was probably crossing into Mexico in hopes of finding work, perhaps in Mexico or for the especially courageous ones willing to risk their lives, in the United States. Their story is a common one, one I’ve heard from migrants for some thirty years of work in Guatemala and Mexico. In that moment my camera caught them, they are willing to risk arrest, detainment in Mexico in order to do our hardest work. I know that story well. The ones I’ve met, and I can say I’ve met hundreds, perhaps thousands, now, are as humble as people can be. They just to want to work for a wage that can feed their families.
They are part of the huddled masses Emma Lazarus wrote about. Americans liked her poem enough to place it at the base of the Statue of Liberty. That’s the America I celebrate.
Over the years I’ve worked with the desperately poor from Latin America, I’ve come to realize that my own family at one point was like them. And they did the same thing. They crossed without papers. Some of them came from Germany fleeing religious persecution in the 1700s. They were undocumented because most everyone came that way. America was a dream then, one that many died to achieve, and if you got here you had a chance. Others of my ancestors were Scots Irish who were so bitterly poor and hungry that I doubt any of them had any thought of obtaining property right away. They sold themselves into indentured servitude and suffered its indignities for a chance. They had documents – documents of indenture.
Were they ridiculed? Absolutely. They were called names. Some were not even considered human. They did the worst of work. They were ostracized from English society. Likely someone even called them murderers and rapists.
These huddled masses went on to build a country where some can try to figure out what it means to help refugees of global trade and economic turmoil in rural areas around the world. Those huddled masses built a democracy where anyone is free to say what they want. They can talk junk about an entire group of border crossers and still be taken seriously. They can run for President if they want. All because someone was willing to take the risk, get in a boat, and dream.