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 cover of Time magazine.
But the girl’s father confirmed to The Washington Post on Thursday night that his child and her mother were not separated — prompting a round of media criticism from the White House and other conservatives.
The heart-wrenching image, captured by award-winning Getty Images photographer John Moore, was spread across the front pages of international newspapers.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Honduran Deputy Foreign Minister Nelly Jerez confirmed Varela’s account to Reuters. A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection also confirmed to the Daily Beast that the mother and daughter were not separated. CPB and Honduran officials could not immediately be reached for comment by The Post.
A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement to The Post on Friday 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.