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A crying toddler has become the symbolic face of family separations. Does her backstory matter?

A crying toddler has become the symbolic face of family separations. Does her backstory matter?
Time magazine's July 2 cover. (Time)

A young girl sobs. Standing over her is a smiling President Trump. “Welcome to America,” the accompanying text reads.

The cover of Time’s July 2 edition lifts the image of a 2-year-old Honduran girl, Yanela Sanchez, from a photo of her crying as a Border Patrol agent pats down her mother at the border in Texas. Yanela’s image is plopped onto a red background, alongside a superimposed Trump.

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The cover earned immediate reaction from supporters, who found it evocative — and critics, who called it exploitative.

As outrage grew over family separations at the border, the original images, taken earlier this month, went viral. The New York Times published one on its June 14 front page, and it has been used as the banner image on a Facebook fundraiser that has collected more than $19 million for migrant families.

The photo evokes previous images of other young children caught in the midst of devastation — the drowned Syrian refugee boy on a beach; the traumatized child covered in dirt after a bombing in Syria’s beseiged city of Aleppo. The single image of a child in a crisis often carries a special power, bringing world events into focus in a way that other photographs cannot. This instance was no different.

This image of a 2-year-old Honduran girl crying as her mother is searched at the border has come to symbolize the separation of migrant families under President Trump's immigration policy. This girl, however, was not among those children separated from their parents.
This image of a 2-year-old Honduran girl crying as her mother is searched at the border has come to symbolize the separation of migrant families under President Trump's immigration policy. This girl, however, was not among those children separated from their parents. (John Moore / Getty Images)

But, in this case, the story behind the photo has generated sharp debate.

When photographer John Moore took the photo for Getty Images, he didn’t know whether the toddler would be separated from her mother. But the assumption that a separation occurred became the shared story, and was included in Time’s original description. Hours after the magazine published its cover, a different story emerged. The girl was outside a detention center, and obviously distraught. But she was not one of the thousands of children who had been separated from family. Her father set the record straight with the Washington Post on Thursday night.

The Trump administration latched onto the mistaken account, using it to turn the focus back to Democrats.

“She was not separated from her mom. The separation here is from the facts. Dems should join POTUS and fix our broken immigration system,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted.

Others countered that while the popular story behind the photo may not have been entirely correct, it was a fact that there were still many children who had been separated from their mothers and fathers.

Time stood by its cover, though it updated its original story to remove the suggestion that the girl was part of a family torn apart by the Trump administration’s original policy of family separation at the border. In the end, the image of the crying girl had become a powerful symbol — one used by both sides in the debate.

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