A viral photo of a small child crying with his hands gripping the side of a cage has sparked outrage as the national debate on immigration toils on.
Posted on Twitter last week by filmmaker and journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, the photo is captioned: "This is what happens when a government believes people are 'illegal.' Kids in cages." It has more than 24,000 retweets and 35,000 likes.
As the heart-wrenching photo made its way across the internet, many began to link its origins to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), drawing a parallel to the almost 2,000 migrant children who have been separated from their parents or guardians, the Department of Homeland Security reported last week.
However, the photo of the young boy was actually taken on June 10, 2018 at an event protesting the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" policy. The boy is not a detainee. The protest featured signs reading: "If you were separated from your child, what would you do?" and "Hey Trump, what if it were your grandchildren in those dog cages? What would you do then?"
The Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Monday that they do not have "a policy of separating families at the border."
The protest was hosted by the Texas chapter of the Brown Berets de Cemanahuac, an indigenous advocacy organization. The group posted on Facebook a photo gallery of the protest, with the little boy noticeably in the background. The viral image, however, was not featured.
"We demand the release of the children being held in a jail and being treated like animals. We will not go away until we have answers!" the Facebook post read.
Snopes debunked the photo of the child in the cage. The boy had not been detained by ICE, nor had it resurfaced from 2014 during the "Obama-era" as some internet commenters had claimed.
PolitiFact also interviewed the original photographer, Leroy Peña, who said in an interview that the boy had spotted his mother outside the space and began crying and that he was only in the cage for about 30 seconds.
Vargas, who originally tweeted the now-viral photo, said in response to criticism as to how his photo was captioned: "Read what I wrote. All I said the photo was this is what happens when a gov't considers people 'illegal.'"
An undocumented immigrant from the Philippines, Vargas opened up in 2011 about his immigrant status in an essay in the New York Times Magazine. He said that he posted the photo because it reminded him of when he was arrested four years ago and detained at the McAllen immigration processing center in Texas.
The photo of the crying toddler behind bars immediately made him think of the young boys he momentarily shared a jail with.
"The fact that people are saying this is fake is untrue," Vargas said. "This is what is happening. It was a real protest expressing what is happening at the border."
And despite calls to Vargas to remove the photo from Twitter, like from actor Misha Collins who said Vargas was guilty of "the same misinformation as Trump and you are giving fodder to the other side," Vargas stands by his original tweets.
"I'm a pretty deliberate person, and intentional in what I do," Vargas said. "If it was wrong, I would have taken it down and apologized."
He said was eventually able to contact the original photographer, Leroy Peña, who told him that while the protest was a staged demonstration, the "actual thing is way, way worse than we were depicting.' Peña also told him the boy was four-years-old, Vargas said.
"This image is emblematic of this very confusing and very disorienting conversation we're having... as a nation," Vargas said.
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