Toddler in shared photo still with her mom

Mother and child were never separated after being detained at the border, says father in Honduras

By Laura M. Holson and Sandra E. Garcia
  • Published 24.06.18
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A Honduran toddler cries as her mother is searched and detained near the US border with Mexico in McAllen, Texas, on June 12; (Below) The Time magazine cover which used the toddler's picture as part of the illustration. (AFP/Getty Images/North America/John Moore)

New York: The photograph of a Honduran toddler, sobbing as she stares up at her mother, became a symbol of outrage this week at the Trump administration's practice of separating children and parents detained for illegally crossing the border.

But the child's father, reached by phone in Honduras on Friday, told The New York Times that the mother and daughter were in fact never separated after being stopped at the border, and that they remain detained together in a family residential centre in Texas.

In a front-page caption published June 14 with a similar photo from a series by John Moore of Getty Images, The Times said only that the girl was crying while her mother was searched. The family's status and whereabouts could not be determined.

It was a related image by Moore of the isolated toddler staring up at her mother and a border agent, both visible only from the waist down, that in subsequent days became a potent symbol in the angry debate over the family separation policy, along with video and pictures of children in chain-link cages and pens taken at Border Patrol sites.

That widely published picture, shared repeatedly on social media, inspired a California couple to set up a Facebook fundraiser that quickly raised more than $19 million for legal fees for separated families. ( The Times published the picture online in an article about the fundraiser.)

And Time magazine created a photo illustration using the young girl's image for a cover, with President Trump looming over her tiny frame, the toddler's mouth agape. "Welcome to America", the cover line reads.

The family separation policy drew opposition from across the political spectrum, including members of Trump's own party, many commentators and religious leaders, as well as all four living former First Ladies. Under pressure, Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday meant to end the separation of families at the border by detaining them together for an indefinite period.

The father, Denis Javier Varela Hernandez, 32, who lives in Puerto Cortés, Honduras, said in an interview in Spanish on Friday that his daughter Yanela, who turns 2 next month, and her mother, Sandra Maria Sanchez, are together and fine.

He said Sanchez, with whom he has been in a relationship for 14 years, left for the US three weeks ago.

Varela, in an interview with Spanish-language Univision that aired on Monday, said that he was surprised to see his wife and daughter featured in the photograph, but that he was not worried.

Moore had captured the image six days earlier, in McAllen, Texas.

"She was looking for a better quality of life, a better future," Varela told The Times on Friday. "She had mentioned to me that she wanted to leave. But she never told me about taking our daughter."

The couple has three other children: a son, Wesly, 14, and two daughters, Cindy, 11, and Brianna, 6. "She wanted a house and she wanted to have her own business," said Varela, who works as a boat captain in Puerto Cortés. "Everyone here wants those things. I always told her to not leave, but everyone makes their own decisions."

As reports surfaced that the family had not been separated, news outlets faced a backlash from Trump supporters and conservative sites calling the narrative around the photograph "fake news", a favourite phrase of President Trump's.

Time magazine stood by its choice to run the illustration, saying in a statement, "Our cover and our reporting capture the stakes of this moment."

But the magazine issued a correction to the accompanying article, saying that Border Patrol agents had not carried the girl away screaming. Instead, the correction said, the mother had picked the toddler up and they left together.

The photograph inspired hundreds of thousands of Americans to donate money to help families caught at the border. Charlotte and Dave Willner said the image was the reason they started a Facebook fundraising page for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, a non-profit organization that provides low-cost legal defence services to refugees in Texas.

They set a goal of $1,500 and were astonished to bring in more than $19 million. On Friday afternoon, the picture was still at the top of their Facebook page.

The Honduran deputy foreign minister, Nelly Jerez, confirmed Varela's version of events to Reuters.

Varela said he had been in contact with his partner's family. If she is able to seek political asylum and stay in the US, he said, "I will support her. If she gets status, then maybe we can visit and also get a positive status."

For now, he said, he is glad to see that the photograph of his daughter had made an impact.

"I feel sad because of the image, but at the same time, happy," he said, adding, "Look at what my daughter has come to mean to immigrants and the topic of immigration worldwide."

New York Times News Service