The Heartbreaking Story Behind That Viral Crying Toddler Photo

A 2-year-old Honduran girl wailed as her mother was searched by a Border Patrol agent at the U.S.-Mexico border.
A 2-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018, in McAllen, Texas.

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 Protection 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 was initially unknown what became of the toddler and her mom, but days later her father said the two had been detained together in Texas.

A U.S. Border Patrol spotlight shines on a terrified mother and son from Honduras as they are found in the dark near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018, in McAllen, Texas.

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.” 

Central American asylum seekers are taken into custody near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018, in McAllen, Texas.

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.” 

Scroll down to see more images captured by Moore in the Rio Grande Valley last week:

U.S. Border Patrol agents arrive to detain a group of Central American asylum seekers near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018, in McAllen, Texas. The group of women and children had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained before being sent to a processing center for possible separation.
A boy and father from Honduras are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico Border on June 12, 2018, near Mission, Texas.
U.S. Border Patrol agents take a father and son from Honduras into custody near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018, near Mission, Texas.
U.S. Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018, near McAllen, Texas.
These families were taken into custody on June 12, 2018, near McAllen, Texas, then sent to a CBP processing center for possible separation.
Central American asylum seekers wait as they are taken into custody on June 12, 2018.

This story has been updated to include more recent information about the detention of the girl and her mother.