Viral toddler at the border photo strikes immigration debate

A photo of a crying toddler went viral on social media and helped put a face on a controversial story. It’s not the first time.

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Border Patrol Agents Detain Migrants Near US-Mexico Border

The image of a crying child has helped illustrate the policy of family separation.

John Moore / Getty Images

You've probably seen it. A photo of a tiny girl, in pink sneakers and a pink jacket, who's barely taller than the tire of the car she's standing next to. She's in anguish, crying as a US Border Patrol agent pats down her mother near the US-Mexico border. The photo, shot at her eye level, shows what a scary, uncertain place the world can be through the eyes of a child.

Getty photographer John Moore took the photo of the 2-year-old Honduran asylum seeker, along with several more, on June 12, a night he's described as moonless. It's gone viral. The New York Daily News ran on the front page. It's the cover image for the RAICES, a Facebook fundraiser to reunite kids with their families, which has raised more than $12 million so far. On Thursday, Time magazine on Twitter unveiled an animation of its latest cover, showing the little girl cut out from the photo, across from a cutout of President Trump. The cover line: "Welcome to America."

That toddler has become one of the focal points for the Trump administration's controversial zero-tolerance policy of separating children from undocumented immigrants crossing the border into the US. More than 2,000 children have been placed in chain-link pens  -- or metal cages, as some call them -- at detention facilities in Texas over the past six weeks. They've been kept apart from their parents amid a finger-pointing debate over what's immigration policy, what's law, who started it and who can end it.

There's policy. And there are sobbing babies.

Photos, particularly of kids in desperate situations, have a gone viral since before people described them that way.

"Photographs have an amazing way of capturing humanity — good or bad," said Seth Gitner, associate professor of newspaper and online journalism at Syracuse University. Photos can show us the toll something like family separation can take on those involved and give us an in-person view we might not get otherwise.  

The story of children being separated from their families has been out for a while. The New York Times reported it in April. As far back as March 2017, President Donald Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, who was then head of the Department of Homeland Security, told CNN the administration was considering such a practice.

Watch this: Tech CEOs speak out against family separation at border

It's only in these past couple of weeks, though, that public outcry reached a boiling point. Citizens, politicians, religious organizations and tech companies from Apple to Microsoft spoke out, calling for something to be done. Audio obtained by ProPublica from inside a detention facility brought the cries of children right into people's headphones. On Wednesday, Trump seemed to bow to public outrage and signed an executive order effectively ending the separation of families at the border for now. When a reporter asked him whether the images of children had affected him, Trump said, "Yes, they affected everyone."

Thursday, Bloomberg reported that during a cabinet meeting, Trump said he'd be directing authorities to reunite those previously separated.

In some ways, it's unsurprising that Moore's work would pack such a punch. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who's been documenting undocumented immigration for a decade. Moore didn't immediately respond to a request for comment, but he told NPR earlier this week that "as a photojournalist, it's my role to keep going even when it's hard. 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 was like for my kids to be separated from me."

Josh Meltzer, assistant professor of photojournalism at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said the photo communicates a lot with just a glance. "The emotion on top of all that factual information is what elevates the picture to a really profound image," he said. 

That quick read is well-suited to a world where we speedily sift and scroll through content online.

For viewers, it was also a first, intimate look at a situation they may have only heard about. The photo begs its audience to wonder what happened to that little girl in the pink sneakers.

"Ever since I took those pictures," Moore told NPR, "I think about that moment often. And it's emotional for me every time."

A spokesman for US Customs and Border Protection said the girl was never separated from her mother. The girl's father, Denis Valera, told Reuters his daughter and her mother have been detained together in the Texas border town of McAllen. The mother has applied for asylum, Reuters said. A deputy foreign minister for Honduras confirmed Valera's version of the events to Reuters.

Photo evidence

It isn't the first time an image of a child in distress has garnered global attention. One of the most notable examples was the disturbing 1972 photo by photographer Nick Ut of Vietnamese children running from a napalm bombing. At the center of the photo was a young girl named Phan Thị Kim Phúc, whose clothes had been burned off her body. Ut won a Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography, and the photo helped shape public perception of the Vietnam War.

On the photo's 40th anniversary, NPR described the image as one that "transcended the divisive debate about the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam War and crystallized the barbarity of war."

It's not just images of kids, either, that inspire emotion. There's been a long-running debate about showing images of the coffins of soldiers killed in war. There was even an 18-year ban, which was lifted in 2009. While part of the rationale was said to be the need to protect the privacy of military families, others have argued that flag-draped coffins underline the reality of war.

"The public has a right to see and to know what their military is doing, and they have a right to see the cost of that military action," then-director of photography for the Associated Press, Santiago Lyon, told The New York Times in 2009.

In 2016, a photo of a dazed little boy sitting in the back of an ambulance, covered in dust and blood, showed how the civil war in Syria was (and still is) affecting the lives of kids. The year before, a photo by Nilüfer Demir of a drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy named Alan Kurdi on a beach led to $275,000 in donations to humanitarian organization Migrant Offshore Aid Station in just 24 hours and raised awareness about the European refugee crisis.

Moore's photo isn't the only image from the current situation to get the outrage machine churning online. US Customs and Border Patrol released a handful of images from inside a detention facility in McAllen, Texas, earlier in the week showing teenage boys sleeping on mats with foil blankets, inside chain-link fencing. That image even sparked a debate as to whether the pens qualified as cages.

"It's a proven point that we see occasionally images come out that have had profound changes upon the policies we interact with or what we think of as being true," Meltzer said.

These days, images can move faster than they ever have before. As Gitner noted, even on larger cameras, you can upload images right away.

Those images become fast evidence that people seem to need to get jolted into action.

"There's no reason to not get an image out to the world," Gitner said.

Originally published June 21 at 6:28 a.m. PT.
Update, 7:37 a.m. PT: Added comment from US Customs and Border Patrol.
Update, 8:21 a.m. PT:
Added information about the Time magazine cover. 
Update, 9:01 a.m. PT: Added information about ProPublica audio.
Update, 11:01 a.m. PT: Added Bloomberg report on reunification.
Update, June 23 at 2:23 p.m. PT: Adds reporting from Reuters confirming the toddler and mother were detained together. 

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