The father of the tearful two-year-old Honduran migrant girl who became the face of the “family separation” news coverage says that his young daughter was never actually separated from her mother when caught by U.S. Border Patrol.
Instead, he says, his daughter and her mother are together in U.S. custody at “at a family residential center in Texas.”
Moreover, the mother had been deported from the U.S. in 2013, according to a statement given by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to Buzzfeed on Thursday evening.
Denis Javier Varela Hernandez, 32, told the UK Daily Mail that his wife Sandra, 32, had taken their daughter, Yanela Denise, on a dangerous journey to the U.S. on June 3 without telling him. They had since been in touch, he said, and he learned the two had been detained together but never separated.
Yanela Denise became an iconic symbol of opposition to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, under which adults who cross the border illegally are prosecuted. As a result, children traveling with migrant adults are often taken to shelters separately until they can be reunited with their parents, a family member, or a sponsor.
Getty Images photographer John Moore took the famous photograph of Yanela Denise standing on the ground and looking up in tears while a McAllen, Texas, Border Patrol agent searched her mother next to a patrol vehicle.
The image spread like a California grassfire. Time Magazine used a cutout of the little girl on its recent cover, where she was depicted confronting President Donald Trump.
Multiple news outlets used the photograph as a symbol of the pain of families being separated by U.S. government officials. A Facebook fundraiser that used the photograph to solicit funds to help reunite families has already raised nearly $20 million, becoming the single largest crowdfunding campaign in the history of the social media platform.
Getty Images captioned the photograph by indicating that the mother and daughter had been “sent to a processing center for possible separation” (emphasis added).
Moore told the Washington Post earlier this week that he had assumed they would be separated: “In his head, he weighed the girl’s chances. According to new federal policies, he said, she would be taken from her mother when the van reached its destination. They would not be reunited until their case had wound through the courts, and then likely only to return to the country they had fled.”
However, Moore did not appear to confirm whether the two had, in fact, been separated.
Now, Hernandez says that his wife and daughter were never separated by Border Patrol agents and that they remain together.
Hernandez also told the Daily Mail that he did not support his wife Sandra’s decision to leave their home and travel through dangerous conditions to seek political asylum in the U.S.: “I didn’t support it. I asked her, why? Why would she want to put our little girl through that? But it was her decision at the end of the day.
“I don’t have any resentment for my wife, but I do think it was irresponsible of her to take the baby with her in her arms because we don’t know what could happen,” he told the Daily Mail.
He said she had talked about going to the United States for a “better future” but she did not say she had made the decision to take the 1,800-mile trip — paying a “coyote” smuggler $6,000 to take them.
When Sandra left on her journey with Yanela, she left Hernandez behind with three other children — Wesly (14), Cindy (11), and Brianna (6).
Though he said she had planned to apply for political asylum, Hernandez did not mention any political persecution that might have justified the claim.
He also said that he was employed: “I thank God that I have a good job here.”
Hernandez said that the first news of his wife’s and daughter’s fate came when he saw Moore’s photograph.
He also told the Daily Mail that officials told him on Wednesday that his wife and child are together in Texas and are “doing fine,” he said.
In an interview with Univision (in Spanish), Hernandez cried as he described his feelings about the situation:
White House correspondent Saagar Enjeti said the interview with the father shows that the family was never separated by government officials, as portrayed by the media. Enjeti observed that his wife came to the U.S. for economic reasons, not fear of violence, and the he was unhappy with her for taking his little girl on very dangerous journey.
The ICE statement to Buzzfeed read:
On June 12, 2018, Sandra Maria Sanchez, 32, a previously deported woman from Honduras illegally re-entered the United States,” . She was arrested by agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Border Patrol near Hidalgo, Texas, while traveling with a family member. On June 17, 2018, Sanchez was transferred to ICE custody, and is currently housed at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. Her immigration proceedings are ongoing.
On July 3, 2013, Sanchez was encountered by immigration officials in Hebbronville, Texas. On July 9, 2013, she was transferred to ICE ERO custody. On July 18, 2013, Sanchez was removed to Honduras under expedited removal.