New Delhi: The photo of a 2-year-old girl crying while a US border agent pats down her mother has gone viral. Clicked only on last Tuesday, the image has become a symbol of the Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance” border policies, which have caused hundreds of children to be removed from the parents who brought them here, reported an article in The Washington Post.
John Moore who captured the photo is an award-winning photographer for Getty Images. Having documented wars, diseases and refugee crises around the world, one would expect him to not be affected much by the cries of children, but like the article says, this sight of the crying little girl broke his heart.
Moore and a unit of Border Patrol guards crouched among the trees on the Rio Grande’s northern bank, listening to the rafts below. He could hear at least four of them sloshing across the river, and just barely make out a dozen or so figures on the two nearest boats, read the article.
“It was very hard to see them,” he remembered. “It was a moonless night, almost impossible to photograph.”
But he needed photographs. While they had been evacuating their homes and traveling – some for weeks – the United States had changed the rules. Pleas for asylum that had been accepted for years might now be rejected. Mothers and fathers, who would have been released to await court hearings, would now be jailed. Their children would be seized and held from them by a foreign government.
The American public had only just learned this. Moore and the Border Patrol agents who hid with him on the banks of the Rio Grande knew it. But the people on the rafts… “These people had no way to know that,” Moore said.
By now he understood that this assignment would not be like any other. The emotions surging through the women and children were already leaking behind his camera lens.
The secretary of homeland security has suggested that the nearly 2,000 children who have been seized at the border since April were taken for their own safety. How could the government know that their parents were not their captors?
As the guards lined up the families on Tuesday night, Moore saw a woman breast-feed a toddler in the middle of the road. There was something about the way she held the girl, the nervous energy in their physical bond, that made him approach them.
“I made eye contact with the mother and started taking a few pictures,” Moore said. In Spanish, she told him the barest essentials of their story.
Her daughter was 2, Moore said. “She said they’d been on the road for a month, and they were from Honduras. I can only imagine what dangers she’d passed through, alone with the girl.”
In an hour or two, his Border Patrol escort’s shift would end and he would have to leave, and since he had no good photo yet, he asked the Honduran woman if he could accompany her and her daughter for the rest of their processing. She allowed it.
All around them, other families were being questioned and searched. When the agents were done with them, they were loaded into the back of a van, to be taken to whatever fate the US immigration system had in store.
The Honduran mother crouched in the dust as she waited for her turn, eyes level with her daughter’s. In Moore’s photo, it looked like she was tying the girl’s shoes. But she was not.
“She’s unlacing them,” Moore told The Washington Post. “Border Patrol confiscates all personal items from everyone. They take hairbands, they take shoelaces, they take belts, they take money, they take wedding rings, they take all personal items. They took the shoelaces from the children.”
Moore was kneeling in the road about six feet away. Most other families were already in the van. He knew that whatever photos he took next would be his last before he returned to his hotel room, then flew back home.
As the mother set the girl down, and an agent began to search her, the girl began to scream. “I wanted to stop her crying,” Moore said. But it all happened so quickly, and the girl’s despair was so complete in those few seconds.
“The mother stoically had her hands against the vehicle, and the girl was crying,” Moore said. “Neither were saying words. Nothing could be said with her. She needed to be with her mother.”
He took two shots, moments apart. He understood at once that they were the photos he had been waiting for – for hours, if not years. Both images would become symbols of what the US-Mexico border has become under President Trump.
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.