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EXCLUSIVE: 'They're together and they're safe.' Father of Honduran two-year-old who became the face of the family separation crisis when she was photographed in tears as her mother was searched by U.S. border control speaks out

Daily Mail logo Daily Mail 6/22/2018 Candace Trunzo
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The father of the Honduran girl who became the face of the family separation crisis has revealed that he still has not been in touch with his wife or daughter but was happy to learn they are safe. 

Denis Javier Varela Hernandez, 32, said that he had not heard from his wife Sandra, 32, who was with his two-year-old daughter Yanela Denise, for nearly three weeks until he saw the image of them being apprehended in Texas.

In an exclusive interview with DailyMail.com, Hernandez, who lives in Puerto Cortes, Honduras, says that he was told yesterday that his wife and child are being detained at a family residential center in Texas but are together and are doing 'fine.'

'You can imagine how I felt when I saw that photo of my daughter. It broke my heart. It's difficult as a father to see that, but I know now that they are not in danger. They are safer now than when they were making that journey to the border,' he said. 

a group of people posing for the camera: Denis Javier Varela Hernandez (far right) spoke out about his wife Sandra and daughter, Yanela

Denis Javier Varela Hernandez (far right) spoke out about his wife Sandra and daughter, Yanela
© Provided by Associated Newspapers Limited

Denis said his wife and daughter were never separated by border control agents and remain together.

He revealed that his wife had previously mentioned her wish to go to the United States for a 'better future' but did not tell him nor any of their family members that she was planning to make the trek.

'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.'

He said that Sandra had always wanted to experience 'the American dream' and hoped to find a good job in the States.

Denis, who works as a captain at a port on the coast of Puerto Cortes, explained that things back home were fine but not great, and that his wife was seeking political asylum.

He said that Sandra set out on the 1,800-mile journey with the baby girl on June 3, at 6am, and he has not heard from her since.

'I never got the chance to say goodbye to my daughter and now all I can do is wait', he said, adding that he hopes they are either granted political asylum or are sent back home.

'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.'

The couple has three other children, son Wesly, 14, and daughters Cindy, 11, and Brianna, six.

'The kids see what's happening. They're a little worried but I don't try to bring it up that much. They know their mother and sister are safe now.'

Denis said that he believes the journey across the border is only worth it to some degree, and admits that it's not something he would ever consider.

He said he heard from friends that his wife paid $6,000 for a coyote - a term for someone who smuggles people across the border.

'I wouldn't risk my life for it. It's hard to find a good job here and that's why many people choose to leave. But I thank God that I have a good job here. And I would never risk my life making that journey.'

The heart-breaking photo was taken by Getty photographer John Moore close to midnight on the night of June 12 near McAllen, Texas, as the row over Donald Trump's separation of migrant parents and children escalated.

Denis said that he hopes to use the photo and his family's situation to help him reunite with his daughter.

'I don't want money, what I want is someone to tell me that my daughter is going to be OK.'

When asked about his views on Trump's border policy, Denis said: 'I've never seen it in a positive light the way others do. It violates human rights and children's rights. Separating children from their parents is just wrong. They are suffering and are traumatized.

'The laws need to be modified and we need to have a conversation. It's just not right.

'[Illegal] Immigration and drug smuggling across the United States border is never gonna stop. They can build a wall and it's never going to stop,' he said.

Sandra was part of a group that were caught by Border Patrol agents after making their way across the Rio Grande river on a raft.

Moore's photo showed Yanela crying on a dirt track as her mother is patted down by a Border Patrol agent.

For many the photo summed up the cruelty of Trump's 'zero tolerance' policy towards migrants which has caused 2,300 children to be separated from their mothers and fathers.

But Hernandez said that he had heard through family members that his wife and daughter had not actually been separated.

He said that Yanela is the youngest of four children and she was the only one that traveled with her mother, a decision that surprised him.

As they made the perilous 1,800 mile journey North through Central America and Mexico, Hernandez heard very little - until he saw Moore's photograph.

Hernandez told Univision : 'My heart broke because it's my little girl. The first time I said that's my little girl when I saw the report.'

Asked if he cried, he said: 'Of course I cried, it's really hard. I can imagine that my wife was very fearful crossing the border because she took the decision.'

Hernandez said that he wanted his wife and daughter to come home and that he would welcome them when they return.

He said the situation in Honduras is 'very difficult but it’s not worth it to risk the mother’s life and the girl’s life.'

He said: 'I hope that they respect the rights of my wife and daughter because she is a queen, it breaks my heart. We all have rights.'

Moore, who has worked on the border with Mexico for years and has won a Pulitzer for his photography, has said the the image of Yanela was the last one he took that night.

Speaking to People magazine he said that the girl's mother was the last to be searched and a female agent asked her to put Yanela down so she could pat her down.

Moore said: 'The mother hesitated and then set down the little girl and the child immediately started crying.

'As a father, it was very emotional for me just to hear those cries. When I saw this little girl break down in tears I wanted to comfort this child.

'But as a photojournalist we sometimes have to keep photographing when things are hard. And tell a story that people would never see.'

Moore crouched 6ft from the girl as she looked up at her mother and took seven shots, Yanela's mother's hands spread out on the Border Patrol truck.

The image was a major factor in pressuring President Donald Trump to do a U-turn on his immigration policy and sign an executive order allowing families to stay together.

The President said that he wanted to look strong but admitted that the 'zero tolerance' policy made him look like he had 'no heart'.

Trump's climb down came after worldwide outrage including British Prime Minister Theresa May who called his policy 'deeply disturbing' while Pope Francis said it was 'immoral'.

The climb down was a rare one from Trump, who almost never apologizes and rarely backs down.

But he had not choice when his policy created a wall of opposition between him and others, including his own wife Melania, Democrats, Republicans, every living former First Lady, Amnesty International and the United Nations.


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