WASHINGTON - A viral photograph captured last week in the Rio Grande Valley has been hailed as a poignant distillation of the heartache and desperation felt by the many families being separated by the Trump administration at the U.S.-Mexico border every day.
The photo, by Pulitzer Prize-winning Getty Images photographer John Moore, shows a 2-year-old child dressed in a bright pink sweater crying helplessly as she looks up at her mother. The woman’s face is unseen in the shot but, according to Moore, she was being searched by a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent at the time.
“[The mother] was told to set the child down while she was searched. The little girl immediately started crying,” the photographer told NPR on Sunday of the emotional moment. “I took only a few photographs and was almost overcome with emotion myself.”
Moments after the photo was taken, the mother and child were hurried into a van with a group of other undocumented migrants and whisked away to a processing center, Moore said. It’s unknown what became of the toddler and her mom.
Moore, who has been photographing the U.S.-Mexico border for a decade, said he’d been able to speak briefly to the mother before the pair were taken away. The woman, who said she was from Honduras, told him that they’d been traveling for “a full month and were exhausted,” Moore told Getty Image’s FOTO website last week.
The number of Honduran migrants apprehended by Border Patrol has been on the rise in recent months as Honduras ― the second-poorest country in Central America ― continues to be plagued by deadly gang violence and political instability.
Moore said many of the migrants he photographed last week were “asylum seekers from Central America, fleeing their home country due to fear of violence or even death,” according to FOTO.
“Most of these families were scared, to various degrees,” Moore told the website. “I doubt any of them had ever done anything like this before – flee their home countries with their children, traveling thousands of miles through dangerous conditions to seek political asylum in the United States, many arriving in the dead of night.”
Having covered the U.S.-Mexico border for many years, Moore said he’s “seen a lot along the way.” But last week felt “different,” he told NPR.
“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,” he said. “Most of us here had heard the news that the [Trump] administration had planned to separate families. And these people really had no idea about this news. And it was hard to take these pictures, knowing what was coming next.”
The Trump administration said on Friday that it had ― in a six-week period beginning April 19 ― separated almost 2,000 children from their parents or caretakers accused of crossing unlawfully into the United States. The separations are part of the administration’s new “zero tolerance” policy for illegal border crossing.
“As a photojournalist, it’s my role to keep going, even when it’s hard,” Moore said. “But as a father ― and I have a toddler myself ― it was very difficult to see what was happening in front of my lens and thinking what it would be like for my kids to be separated from me.”
First lady Melania Trump issued a subtle rebuke to her husband’s administration on Sunday, saying she “hates” seeing children separated from their families by immigration authorities.
In a statement to CNN’s Kate Bennett, Trump made her first public comments about the Justice Department’s new “zero tolerance” policy towards illegal border-crossing, which has resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents and placed in juvenile detention centers.
“Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform,” the statement, issued through the first lady’s spokeswoman, said. “She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart.”
But while her comments may run counter to the president’s, some have said they don’t go nearly far enough to counter false statements made by the White House and merely echo an inaccurate claim that Democrats are responsible for the separations.
The Department of Homeland Security said last week that nearly 2,000 immigrant children had been separated from their parents over a span of six weeks after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the new “zero tolerance” policy. Sessions has routinely defended his decision, saying that “if you are smuggling a child then we will prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you as required by law.”
“If you don’t like that, then don’t smuggle children over our border,” he concluded last month after announcing the policy.
Despite Sessions’ public announcement of the strategy, President Donald Trump has continually heaped blame on Democrats, saying the party must “change their law” to stop the separations. But no law requires children and their parents be separated, only the White House policy, and as The New York Times notes, previous administrations frequently offered leniency to families caught crossing the border.
The separations caught the attention of another notably restrained first lady on Sunday as well. Laura Bush said the ongoing policy at the border “breaks her heart” in an editorial published by The Washington Post.
“I live in a border state. I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel,” she wrote.
Former first lady Laura Bush issued a rare castigation of the Trump administration on Sunday, calling family separations at the U.S. border with Mexico “immoral” and drawing parallels to World War II internment camps.
Bush’s editorial in The Washington Post mirrored growing criticism of the Justice Department’s new policy to prosecute as many people as possible who cross the border illegally. The move, announced last month by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has already resulted in a massive spike in children being separated from their parents. Last week, DHS announced that nearly 2,000 kids had been separated from their parents during a six-week period ending last month. Many are currently being held in juvenile detention centers.
“I live in a border state. I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart. Our government should not be in the business of warehousing children in converted box stores or making plans to place them in tent cities in the desert outside of El Paso. These images are eerily reminiscent of the Japanese American internment camps of World War II, now considered to have been one of the most shameful episodes in U.S. history.”
The Bushes have been notably quiet throughout President Donald Trump’s first term, just as they were during Barack Obama’s presidency. Former President George W. Bush appeared to push back against White House policy last month when he warned about the “dangers of isolation” during an awards ceremony, but his wife’s editorial was a far starker rebuke.
“We pride ourselves on acceptance,” the former first lady wrote. “If we are truly that country, then it is our obligation to reunite these detained children with their parents — and to stop separating parents and children in the first place. People on all sides agree that our immigration system isn’t working, but the injustice of zero tolerance is not the answer.”
Several lawmakers and reporters have begun to release accounts about the detention centers, one of which now houses upwards of 1,400 children. MSNBC reporter Jacob Soboroff said last week that the facility he toured was “called a shelter but these kids are incarcerated.”
First lady Melania Trump appeared to offer her own criticism of the policy on Sunday, telling CNN through a spokeswoman that she “hates to see children separated from their families.”
Some criticized her comments, however, for not going far enough.