The widely shared photo of the little girl crying as a U.S. Border Patrol agent patted down her mother became a symbol of the families pulled apart by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy at the border, even landing on the new cover of Time magazine.
But the girl’s father told The Washington Post on Thursday night that his child and her mother were not separated, and a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman confirmed that the family was not separated while in the agency’s custody.
The revelation has prompted a round of media criticism from the White House and other conservatives.
“It’s shameful that dems and the media exploited this photo of a little girl to push their agenda,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted Friday. “She was not separated from her mom. The separation here is from the facts.”
The heart-wrenching image, captured by award-winning Getty Images photographer John Moore, was spread across the front pages of international newspapers. It was used to promote a Facebook fundraiser that has collected more than $18 million to help reunite separated families.
And on Thursday, hours before the little girl’s father spoke out, Time magazine released its July 2 cover using the child’s image — without the mother — in a photo illustration that shows her looking up at President Trump, who is seen towering above her.
“Welcome to America,” the cover reads.
Time and Moore, the photographer, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
At first, not much was known about the mother and daughter or what happened to them.
Many — including the journalist who took the photo — speculated that the girl might ultimately have been separated from her mother, like the more than 2,300 migrant children split from their parents since May 5.
In Honduras, Denis Javier Varela Hernandez recognized his daughter in the photo and also feared that she was separated from her mother, he told The Post.
But he learned this week that his wife and daughter were not, in fact, separated: The mother, 32-year-old Sandra Sanchez, was detained with her nearly-2-year-old daughter, Yanela, at a facility in McAllen Tex., Varela said. Honduran Deputy Foreign Minister Nelly Jerez confirmed Varela’s account to Reuters.
An Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman said in a statement to The Post that Sanchez was arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol near Hidalgo, Tex., on June 12 while traveling with a family member. She was transferred to ICE custody on June 17 and is being housed at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Tex., according to ICE.
ICE said Sanchez was previously deported to Honduras in July 2013.
Sanchez and her daughter left for the United States from Puerto Cortes, north of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, on June 3, Varela said. Sanchez had told her husband that she hoped to go to the United States to seek a better life for her children, away from the dangers of their home country. But she left without telling him that she was taking their youngest daughter with her. Varela, who has three other children with Sanchez, feared for the little girl’s safety, he said. Yanela is turning 2 years old at the beginning of July.
After Sanchez left, Varela had no way to contact her or learn of her whereabouts. Then, on the news, he saw the photo of the girl in the pink shirt.
“The first second I saw it, I knew it was my daughter,” Varela told The Post. “Immediately, I recognized her.”
He heard that U.S. officials were separating families at the border, before Trump reversed the policy Wednesday. Varela felt helpless and distressed “imagining my daughter in that situation,” he said.
Moore, the photographer who captured the photograph, told The Post’s Avi Selk that he ran into the mother and toddler in McAllen on Tuesday night. He knew only that they were from Honduras and had been on the road for about a month, he said. “I can only imagine what dangers she’d passed through, alone with the girl.”
Moore photographed the girl crying as the border agent patted down the mother.
But then, Moore told The Post, the woman picked up her daughter, they walked into the van, and the van drove away. Moore didn’t know what happened to the family, but based on the new federal policies, he speculated that she would be taken from her mother when the van reached its destination.
“I don’t know what the truth is,” Moore said. “I fear they were split up.”
A Time story recounting the photographer’s experience initially stated the girl was carried away screaming by border agents, and later corrected the article to say that the two were taken away together.
This week, Varela received a phone call from an official with Honduras’s foreign ministry, letting him know his wife and daughter were detained together. While he doesn’t know anything about the conditions of the facility or what is next for Sanchez and Yanela, he was relieved to hear they were in the same place.
As news emerged late Thursday that the mother and child were not separated, conservative media jumped on the story, portraying it as evidence of “fake news” surrounding the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
It was the most prominent story on the home page of the conservative news outlet Breitbart, which called it a “fake news photo.”
Varela pushed back against the portrayals of his daughter’s story, saying it should not cast doubt on the “human rights violations” taking place at the border.
“This is the case for my daughter, but it is not the case for 2,000 children that were separated from their parents,” Varela said.
At least 2,500 migrant children have been separated from their parents at the border since May 5.
Varela said he felt “proud” that his daughter has “represented the subject of immigration” and helped propel changes in policy. But he asked that Trump “put his hand on his heart.”
He hopes that U.S. officials will grant asylum to his wife and daughter, he said.
Asked whether he would also like to come to the United States, he said, “Of course, someday.”
(c) 2018 The Washington Post