Two-year-old Yanela Denise Varela of Honduras became the poster child this week of the current border crisis in which the Trump administration is being castigated for having separated immigrant parents from their children who had illegally entered from Mexico. That photo became part of a montage cover of TIME magazine in which little Yanela is seen screaming in apparent pain in front of an apparently impassive President Donald Trump who looks back at her. This week, the four living First Ladies denounced the separation of children from parents on the border, while Democrats, progressives, and immigration advocates continue to make demands demand opening the border.
On Thursday, Trump signed an executive order that altered the administration's policy regarding the separation of children from adults among illegal immigrants, which originally a measure to prevent sex trafficking. Despite their earlier insistence that parents should not be separated from their children, Democrats were not mollified by the president's concession.
As author Ann Coulter has pointed out, however, the little girl and her mother, Sandra Sanchez, 32, left behind a home and husband in Honduras. She tweeted on Friday, "Women are torturing their 2-year-old children, taking them on 1,000 mile treks through the desert because Trump didn't build a wall."
Photo by John Moore of Getty
Celebrities and news media broadcast the image as evidence of the cold-heartedness of the Trump administration regarding asylum-seekers and children.
Sandra and Yanela were detained in McAllen, Texas, on June 14 at night. They were taken into custody there after making a 1,800 mile journey.
Yanela’s father is Denis Javier Varela Hernandez, 32, who said that until a photo of his daughter went viral on the internet, he had not heard from his wife Sandra for almost three weeks. Varela lives in Puerto Cortes, where he works as a port pilot on the Caribbean shore. “We have had 18 days of anguish that have broken my heart,” Varela said. “It wrecked my soul to see my daughter cry when the immigration agents in the U.S. separated her from her mother,” he said while weeping on camera. While Sandra had spoken to him about her wish to emigrate to the U.S. for a better future, Varela said that she did not tell him or other family members about her plans to take the difficult and dangerous journey north. The Daily Mail quoted Varela, saying, “I didn't support it.” Varela asked, “Why would she want to put our little girl through that? But it was her decision at the end of the day.”
Varela said that while he does not resent what his wife did, he does think it was irresponsible on her part. He and Sandra have three other children, ages 14, 11, and six. He said that he would never consider taking the risk of a journey to the U.S. border. While saying that jobs are hard to find in Honduras, he is glad to have a job. Saying that Sandra had always sought the American dream, Varela said that she is hoping to find a good job in the U.S. Varela said that it was Sandra’s decision alone to go to the U.S. and to “have a better future and the chance to get ahead.” He made clear that he earns enough to cover his family’s necessities and have a normal life. “To see my daughter’s photo was hard, but we hope that everything will go well,” Varela said. “We trust in God that things will be okay.” He told the Washington Post that his wife and daughter are currently held at a family residential center in Texas “but are together and are doing fine.”
Varela said that he hopes that Sandra and Yanela are given asylum or returned to Honduras. According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Sandra previously faced deportation from the U.S. in 2013. Immigration official caught her in Hebbronville, Texas, and returned to Honduras by “expedited removal” just 15 days later. This time, Sandra came with a baby. In the current case, Sandra’s immigration proceedings are “ongoing,” according ICE.
The photo of Yanela has been credited for getting President Trump to alter his administration’s policy regarding illegal immigrants who come with children. On Thursday, the president signed an executive order that calls for families to remain united during the adjudication process. Even so, detention centers already contracted by the federal government are filling up, and military bases are being prepared to accept thousands more asylum-seekers.
Prize-winning photographer John Moore explained to NPR that Yanela and Sandra were arrested upon illegally entering the U.S. after crossing the Rio Grande on a raft. Moore took the photo after Border Patrol agents asked Sandra to put Yanela down so that the mother could be frisked for drugs and weapons according to standard protocol. Moore said that the separation only lasted long enough so that he could snap a few frames. Yanela was soon swept up by her mother and the two left together in custody. Moore said that the brief separation only lasted long enough to shoot a “very few frames of that moment before it was over.” Yanela was then quickly picked up by her mother and the two departed together.
Moore told NPR: “Having covered this story for the last 10 years, I've seen a lot along the way. But in this case, this last week, it was different because I knew that what happened after these pictures were taken was going to be something very different. Most of us here had heard the news that the [Trump] administration had planned to separate families. And these people [coming across the border] really had no idea about this news. And it was hard to take these pictures, knowing what was coming next.”
According to Department of Homeland Security, 10,000 of the 12,000 children currently in DHS care arrived alone -- without parents. Therefore, family separation happened before they reached the border, sometimes with the help of smugglers known as coyotes.
After attention to the photo swirled, TIME magazine issued an explanation in the online version of its cover story: “The original version of this story misstated what happened to the girl in the photo after she taken from the scene. The girl was not carried away screaming by U.S. Border Patrol agents; her mother picked her up and the two were taken away together.” However, the story and its dramatic headline remains. The title of the TIME article is: “‘All I Wanted to Do Was Pick Her Up.’ How a Photographer at the U.S.-Mexico Border Made an Image America Could Not Ignore.”
Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.