It is interesting what discoveries can be made when you look through the lens of a camera. A photographer’s job is simple: capture the beauty, reality, and truth of a single moment.
But sometimes what we capture is different than what we intended. What you thought you once understood might change in the instant you press the button and the shutter closes. A powerful image has the ability to challenge the way we understand the world around us. This is one of those images for me.
I took this family’s farewell photo in front of their church house in Alexandria, Virginia. In their Sunday best, they stand close as the sunshine filters through the trees behind them. Hope and faith shine through their countenances but also a sorrow so deep it threatens to engulf us all at any moment.
I watch as he holds her a little closer, and these beautiful little ones cling to her hands and skirt a little tighter in the hope that the minutes will slow, that this gorgeous afternoon in Alexandria will last an eternity.
We hope they can remember this moment because the following morning they will embrace her for the last time for a very long time. She will be banned from coming back home for 10 years. They won’t get to smell her clothes and feel the warmth of her skin. In the coming years, she won’t be sitting on the sidelines cheering them on as they kick the ball into the goal. She won’t be there to make their favorite meals after school and laugh at their silly jokes. She’ll be worlds away, only reachable and touchable through a screen.
On the morning of October 16, 2017, Catia Paz drove with her family to the airport, bid what can only be described as an anguished farewell to all she knows and loves, and walked through the terminal, escorted by an ICE agent, to her seat bound to El Salvador. A place she left when she was just 17. A place riddled with bullet holes and violence, often called the murder capital of the world. It will be a miracle if she finds a job and yet another miracle if that job gets her home before dark.
During her 15 years on U.S. soil, Catia attempted repeatedly to petition for legal status, but to no avail. It seems she was always just a few inches removed from the right lucky break. If she had arrived in 2001 instead of 2002, she could have obtained Temporary Protected Status (TPS) as her parents did. If she had arrived at age 16 instead of 17, she could have received DACA status as her sister did. If her husband were a permanent resident or citizen rather than a TPS recipient, he could have sponsored her for legal status.
Had there been any hint or semblance of a resolution in sight, her stay could have been granted, and this young mother would have been able to linger in that moment in front of the church a little longer. The immense burden and numbing consistency of fear and stress erased from her eyes and creases in her forehead, at peace and weighed down with ordinary worries instead of the extraordinary.
The cold hard reality is that had Congress passed the Dream Act that was introduced in January — or even if it had merely demonstrated that it was likely to do so — Catia would be home right this minute, likely making food for whoever was about to walk through her front door, just as she had the day I met her.
It’s difficult to imagine that perfect afternoon now without pangs of sadness. Yet there is also cause for hope. Through my own meager efforts to help Catia and her family, I found entire advocacy groups, dedicated immigration attorneys, journalists, clergy from multiple denominations, neighbors, strangers, and many others who took up Catia’s cause without asking for remuneration of any kind.
On the day I took these photographs, I was reminded that the deafening voices of the few do not define who we are as a country. We do. We define who we are every time we speak up, engage in civil discourse, peacefully resist, give others the benefit of the doubt, and stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. That has always been at the heart of America.
The question then remains, how will we continue to define our nation in the future?