Amid Trump-Created Humanitarian Crisis, One Photograph Speaks A Thousand Words

One photograph that has gone viral is standing as a visualization of the Trump Administration's inhumane asylum policies.

A photograph released overnight has come to symbolize the human cost of the humanitarian crisis that has been created at the border by the Trump Administration’s policies regarding people who have come here seeking asylum:

 The father and daughter lie face down in the muddy water along the banks of the Rio Grande, her tiny head tucked inside his T-shirt, an arm draped over his neck.

The portrait of desperation was captured on Monday by the journalist Julia Le Duc, in the hours after Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez died with his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, as they tried to cross from Mexico to the United States.

The image represents a poignant distillation of the perilous journey migrants face on their passage north to the United States, and the tragic consequences that often go unseen in the loud and caustic debate over border policy.

It recalled other powerful and sometimes disturbing photos that have galvanized public attention to the horrors of war and the acute suffering of individual refugees and migrants — personal stories that are often obscured by larger events.

Like the iconic photo of a bleeding Syrian child pulled from the rubble in Aleppo after an airstrike or the 1993 shot of a starving toddler and a nearby vulture in Sudan, the image of a single father and his young child washed up on the Rio Grande’s shore had the potential to prick the public conscience.

As the photo ricocheted around social media on Tuesday, Democrats in the House were moving toward approval of an emergency $4.5 billion humanitarian aid bill to address the plight of migrants at the border.

Representative Joaquin Castro, Democrat of Texas and the chairman of the Hispanic Caucus, grew visibly emotional as he discussed the photograph in Washington. He said he hoped that it would make a difference among lawmakers and the broader American public.

“It’s very hard to see that photograph,” Mr. Castro said. “It’s our version of the Syrian photograph — of the 3-year-old boy on the beach, dead. That’s what it is.”

The young family from El Salvador — Mr. Martínez, 25, Valeria and her mother, Tania Vanessa Ávalos — arrived last weekend in the border city of Matamoros, Mexico, hoping to apply for asylum in the United States.
But the international bridge was closed until Monday, officials told them, and as they walked along the banks of the river, the water appeared manageable.

The family set off together around mid-afternoon on Sunday. Mr. Martínez swam with Valeria on his back, tucked under his shirt. Ms. Ávalos followed behind, on the back of a family friend, she told government officials.

But as Mr. Martínez approached the opposite bank, carrying Valeria, Ms. Ávalos could see he was tiring in the rough water. She decided to swim back to the Mexican bank.

Back on the Mexico side, she turned and saw her husband and daughter, close to the American bank, sink into the river and get swept away.

On Monday, their bodies were recovered by Mexican authorities a few hundred yards from where they were swept downstream, fixed in the same haunting embrace.

“It is very unfortunate that this happens,” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico said at a news conference on Tuesday. But as more migrants were being turned away by the United States, he said, “there are people who lose their lives in the desert or crossing the Rio Grande.”

Recent weeks have brought home the dangers along the border, though none quite as graphically as the death of Mr. Martínez and Valeria.

On Sunday, two babies, a child and woman were found dead in the Rio Grande Valley, overcome by the searing heat. A toddler from India was found dead in Arizona earlier this month.

And three children and an adult from Honduras perished when their raft overturned two months ago while crossing the Rio Grande.


Mr. Trump, from the outset of his election campaign, has made a crackdown on illegal immigration a centerpiece of his presidency.

His administration has attempted to criminalize those entering the United States illegally, separated parents from their children and drastically slowed down the ability of migrants to apply for asylum in the United States.

More recently, his administration has imposed a plan to send thousands of asylum seekers back to Mexico to await their court proceedings.

Under sustained pressure from Mr. Trump, Mexico has been stepping up its own migration enforcement in recent months.

This effort accelerated in the past two weeks as part of a deal that the López Obrador administration struck with Washington to thwart potentially crippling tariffs.

As of Monday, the Mexican government had deployed more than 20,000 security forces to the southern and northern borders to try to impede the passage of undocumented migrants toward the United States, officials said.

But human rights experts, immigrants’ advocates and security analysts warned that the mobilization could drive migrants to resort to more dangerous routes in their effort to reach the United States.

For all the hard-line policies, hundreds of thousands of migrants continue to embark on the dangerous journey to the United States from Central America and elsewhere.

But for every migrant who chooses to take the journey, whether on foot, packed into cargo trucks or on the top of trains, the fear of what lies behind outweighs that which lies ahead.

The Washington Post has further details about the family and the reasons that led them to take the risk crossing the Rio Grande in their search for a better life, as does CNN, but there’s really nothing more to say once you look at that photograph. As more than one commentator has noted, it stands alongside the photograph taken several years ago of a young Syrian boy named Alan Kurdi lying dead on a European beach, and of the iconic photograph of a young Vietnamese girl named Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked and in terror in the wake of a South Vietnamese napalm attack on her village. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, and this photograph certainly fits into that category.

All of this is rooted, of course, in the Trump Administration’s policies regarding asylum seekers coming to the United States. Under these new policies, the numbers of asylum seekers being allowed to cross the border have been drastically reduced. Instead, with the apparent agreement of the government of Mexico, most of them are being held in camps on the Mexican side of the border to await asylum proceedings in the United States. According to reports, the conditions in these camps are rather appalling and that has only gotten worse as we’ve gotten into the summer months and the temperatures have risen. Meanwhile, it appears that most asylum seekers are being deliberately kept badly informed about the timing of future asylum cases and being told to wait in Mexico. While many appear to be complying with those instructions, others have grown desperate enough that they have left the camps to attempt the dangerous crossing into the United States on their own. This is apparently the choice that the Ramirez family, who left El Salvador due to gang violence and a corrupt government incapable of handling it, decided to make, with the obvious tragic results.

Honestly speaking, I don’t know what the answer to all of this is. We obviously can’t accept at face value every person’s asylum claim without properly investigating them the best we can. At the same time, though, we can’t turn these people away, both because humanitarian concerns demand that, and because of our own laws, as well as international treaties to which we are a signatory, require us to give these people an appropriate hearing. What is clear, though, is that these current policies are not working and that they will lead to more tragedy if we allow them to continue.

One suggestion that some people keep coming back to is trying to help address the situation in Central America. I’m not recommending or advocating intervention in any nation’s internal affairs. One could argue that the current situation in Central America is due in no small part to past intervention and interference from the United States. Clearly, though, this asylum issue is going to continue as long as conditions in nations such as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, which is where most of these people have been coming from, continue to be as bad as they are or, as is more likely, get even worse than they currently are.

I’ve seen some suggestion for a Marshall Plan-like plan for these nations, but the problem with that idea is that any funds given to the governments in these countries are likely to end up in the pockets of corrupt leaders rather than helping to create stability in places that have been unstable for a long period of time. There ought to be some kind of workable solutions, though, because nations such as Costa Rica and Panama have largely managed to avoid falling into the trap of their neighbor to the north. Until we address the root causes of all of this, the asylum seekers are going to continue to come, and tragedies like what happened to Mr. Ramirez and his family will continue to happen.

Photo credit: Julia du Lac, Associated Press

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Donald Trump, Latin America, Politicians, US Politics, , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Jen says:

    One could argue that the current situation in Central America is due in no small part to past intervention and interference from the United States.

    Yes, that, but a more direct and obvious cause is the insatiable American appetite for illegal drugs. The corruption that exists in these countries exacerbates the problems further, but the money that the illegal drug trade generates is at the root of much of this.

    Americans need to come to grips with how much of this problem is of our own making.

    Seeking asylum is not against the law.

    We should all be deeply ashamed at what we’ve become. “Christian nation” my @ss.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    @Jen: And Global Warming which these countries do little to cause and which we refuse to deal with. Food doesn’t grow here anymore.

  3. SenyorDave says:

    As someone said, for Trump the cruelty is the point.

  4. Kathy says:

    Honestly speaking, I don’t know what the answer to all of this is.

    Neither do I. but basic human decency demands mercy and compassion, not hatred and mistreatment.

  5. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    The POTUS is a rapist and a murderer. Allegedly….

  6. EddieInCA says:

    Honestly speaking, I don’t know what the answer to all of this is.

    FIRST: RAISE F**KING TAXES on everyone making more than $1M per year. Raise them even more on people making more than $10M per year. And raise them even more on people making $100M per year. And TAX all income, regardless of how it comes in. You make $100M on stocks, you pay INCOME TAX on that, not CAPITAL GAINS TAX. You make $10M on a real estate deal, you pay INCOME TAX on that, not CAPITAL GAINS TAX. Get rid of the tax sheltering loopholes.


    THIRD: Create Seasonal Guest Worker Programs for industries that specifically need low-skilled labor that Americans won’t do.

    That’s my start… Who’s next?

  7. Neil J Hudelson says:

    I don’t know how anyone can support this administration, and their inhuman cruelty, especially anyone who is a parent. My daughter is 23 months old, the same as that poor girl. To hold a child at that age, to talk to them, love them, feels like you are holding a miracle. They have just figured out that this world is a big, scary, wonderful place. The joy they have for, and the absolute trust they place in their parents is profound. Every last, tragic moment of that father’s life was spent assuring his daughter that everything was going to be alright, to be brave, because daddy has this. We’re going to get through this together. And every last, tragic moment of her life was spent holding on to the person she trusted most.

    I really fucking hate our President, his supporters, and everything they have wrought.

  8. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:


  9. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    I wonder why Paul isn’t here defending the death of these people?

  10. Teve says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl: he’ll come here, and he’ll blame the dead father, and/or Pelosi and/or Obama. Trumpers are not good people.

  11. Teve says:

    @Neil J Hudelson:

    I really fucking hate our President, his supporters, and everything they have wrought.

    you and me both.

  12. EddieInCA says:


    Teve says:
    Wednesday, June 26, 2019 at 16:12

    @Neil J Hudelson:

    I really fucking hate our President, his supporters, and everything they have wrought.

    you and me both.

    At the risk of incurring your wrath, I’ll ask… “So what are you gonna do about it?”

    Just speaking for me… I’ve already signed up with the DNC to phone bank, I’m gonna walk precincts wherever I can, even when I’m traveling to Georgia, Florida, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, all of which I’ll be visiting over the next five months. I plan on giving money and time, as much as I can spare, to try to help ending our national nightmare. Join me. Seriously.

  13. Teve says:

    @EddieInCA: no wrath. I’m still getting healthy and recovering from a car wreck that put me in the ICU several months ago, and job-searching on low funds, so the dues I sent the ACLU in April is all I can afford financially. (I can’t even really afford that, when I got in the car wreck I had just started a new job and so was uninsured and now I have bills I’ll literally never be able to pay) But I’ll be contributing however I can, and pestering my friends to get registered to vote, particularly the ones here in Florida.

  14. Stormy Dragon says:

    We obviously can’t accept at face value every person’s asylum claim without properly investigating them the best we can.

    “We don’t want to” != “We can’t”

  15. Neil J Hudelson says:


    Author deleted post when he realized the reply wasn’t to him.

  16. Neil J Hudelson says:


    Thank you for your ACLU membership donation. The membership donations are more important than one might think–‘membership’ goes to our 501(c)4 side, where we have a lot more latitude on how we spend it, including on politically-related issues.

  17. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    US birthrates are at a 30 year low…longevity is up…the population is getting older…the median age in the US is 38.
    The reality is that we NEED immigration.
    These policies are short-sighted and ignorant…besides being murderous.

  18. Teve says:

    @Neil J Hudelson: I think I joined around 2003.

  19. Jen says:

    @Neil J Hudelson: Good to know! I am a monthly donor since…November 2016.

  20. EddieInCA says:


    That’s awesome. I want to also toss this out to everyone else.

    If you have free time, volunteer when you can., especially in swing states/counties. I did so in 2008 while living and working in Florida. I volunteered for the DNC AND the Obama Campaign. I knocked on doors, made phone calls, and on election day, I used a DNC paid-for van to drive people to the polls and back home. I was exhausted, but felt so good to actually do something.

  21. Guarneri says:

    OTB hits absolute rock bottom.

  22. michael reynolds says:

    You’re scum, Drew. Fuck off

  23. An Interested Party says:

    OTB hits absolute rock bottom.

    And what for, pray tell? For actually criticizing the trash in the White House for the policy that led to this crisis? And to think that you still support said trash? You’re pathetic…

  24. Mister Bluster says:

    …rock bottom…

    everytime they let you post…

  25. jim brown 32 says:

    Seriously, why can’t the supposed group that claims to be the “adults in the room” view an issue outside of partisan lenses? This issue has crescendo’d on Trumps watch but it darn sure didn’t start there. There are MULTIPLE bad actors involved in this tragedy that led to this outcome.

    Where is the accountability and anger towards the native countries for their role? Their elite and upper classes aren’t fleeing to America–the poor are. Which means there is a will and capability to secure safety and prosperity for the privileged–but not for all. Crisis like this are like train wrecks…MULTIPLE layers of societal controls and accountability have to fail in order for this to happen. I would anticipate a good faith broker would have enough hate for our Administration, the cartels, the central american gangs and governments, the human traffickers, and anyone who would use this human tragedy to advance a point of view as long as the issue is useful. Once its no longer useful—you’ll never hear a peep out of these people.

    The sad fact that even assuming the best of conditions for economic refugees in American. Coming here isn’t their preferred choice–im sure their ideal scenario is to pursue happiness in their native land. Its a fair question to ask how many economic refugee’s can we viably take on in America: 1 million, 3 million, 10 million? Its also reasonable to forecast that conditions in the Central America will not change in the foreseeable future to leave us within that limit. What do we do then? Is it better to address the problem at its source sooner–or later? We are on an unavoidable collision course with that decision point.

  26. michael reynolds says:

    @jim brown 32:
    Even countries like Jordan and Turkey manage to set up reasonably humane refugee camps without taking children from their parents. 3rd world countries manage this with the help of NGO’s, why can’t we?

    Why don’t we blame the native governments? We do. We also know there’s nothing we can do about it because we shot our bolt on interventions in Latin America about ten times over. Short of direct intervention, what can we do to the government of Guatemala that won’t just hurt the people even more?

    We could go back in time and not start the drug war, that’d be good. Find me a time machine. We could go back and not subvert Latin American governments. Again: time machine needed.

    As for the larger problem, I don’t think your criticism is fair. Democrats have been trying to pass comprehensive immigration reform for a long while now, always stopped by the GOP because they wanted it as a political issue. It’s not Dems who stop employer verification programs, it’s not Dems getting hysterical over catch and release. The fact is we need these people now, there is no reason whatsoever for this level of upset, this is an overhyped issue. Is it a real issue? Yes, very much so, and I’ve been bitching that the candidates need to start getting real. But this isn’t a both-sides thing; one side is feckless and confused, the other is evil.

  27. SenyorDave says:

    @michael reynolds: I would add that the way Trump ran and his stance since he became president essentially negates even the possibility of a comprehensive solution. The GOP supports him 100% on his views on immigration so what are the “adults in the room” supposed to do? As you said, this isn’t a both sides situation. Trump and the GOP are trying to use the border situation to win elections, and that is what they do with every major issue.

  28. steve says:

    This photo will be framed and hung in Trump’s office with the caption “A Good Start”.


  29. Teve says:

    Shit, even when George W bush and John McCain tried to pass immigration reform with the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, with funding for 20,000 more border agents and 300 more miles of fencing, who wrecked it in the Senate? Republicans.

  30. Guarneri says:

    “This was not a family turned coldly away as it fled violence and oppression. They were not turned away at all. They simply grew impatient waiting for the bureaucratic wheels to turn. Indeed, family members confirm that the family was not being persecuted in its home country:

    Oscar worked at a Papa Johns pizza restaurant, where he was earning $350 a month.

    They lived off his wage, limiting themselves to $10-a-day, because Tania had already quit her job as a cashier in a Chinese restaurant to care for Valeria, their only child.

    …They were not fleeing violence, Tania’s mother has since said, but were in desperate search of a life where they could earn more.

    Their plan was to spend a few years in America to save up enough money to eventually return to El Salvador and buy or build their own house.

    This might explain why their asylum request was taking so long to process. Ramirez and his family were looking for asylum from low-paying fast-food jobs, which isn’t how the asylum program is traditionally meant to be used. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website defines “asylum” this way:

    Refugee status or asylum may be granted to people who have been persecuted or fear they will be persecuted on account of race, religion, nationality, and/or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

    We have stretched the concept of “persecuted on account of race, religion, or social group” into meaningless if we include those who are (understandably) distressed by low wages. If you blame the terrible deaths of Oscar and Valeria Ramirez on Trump, you must be arguing that the President should have personally moved the Ramirez family to the front of the asylum line. Or else that he should have instated a general policy that grants immediate asylum to anyone in the world who wants to come here for a few years to make some money and then return home. This would be absurd, of course. Donald Trump isn’t responsible for this. Neither is the Republican Party. So, what (or who) is responsible?

    It seems there are two systematic problems we can blame. First, abuses of the asylum system have been tolerated for so long that people who shouldn’t qualify for asylum still expect to receive it. I don’t blame Ramirez for seeking asylum. If I were in his position, I probably would have done the same. But we obviously cannot make someone a refugee because they weren’t getting paid enough at Papa John’s. Requests of that kind should be denied immediately. Loopholes that allow or encourage these sorts of abuses must be closed.

    Second, our border is porous and everyone knows it. Ramirez knew that if he could just make it across the river, he’d probably be home free. Again, I don’t blame him for attempting it, but I do blame our government for enticing men like Ramirez by leaving the border open. If he only knew that his chances of making it across were extremely slim, perhaps he never would have stepped foot into that river. A fortified and enforced border may seem mean and scary to metropolitan liberals, but it would be life-saving for people on both sides of it.

    If Ramirez knew that he couldn’t get here by erroneously seeking asylum or by sneaking across, maybe he would have tried to apply for citizenship through the standard channels. Or else he might have stayed in El Salvador and thought about other ways to increase his income. If he had done either of those things, he and his daughter would be alive today. The compassionate thing, then, is to encourage as many people as possible to choose between one of those two options. And that means enforcing our laws and protecting our border.


    But carry on with your grotesque propaganda.

  31. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @michael reynolds: I fully acknowledge that we can and are obligated to do better. However, I reject the premise that there is nothing we can do. We do things against countries to influence all the time. Again far more powerful countries and have an effective. The reality is that these are poor brown people so no one really cares with a burden that would lead to action. They deserve better than nice camps after walking a few 1000 miles to escape the failed states they live in.

    If ever there was a reason to directly intervene in another countries affair…this is it. Effectively, the elite classes in these countries are exporting there “untouchable” classes to American. On purpose. It’s a win for them. We need a package of direct and indirect approach to really fix them. There is no political will to do that. Comprehensive immigration reform mitigates a symptom…not the root of the problem

  32. michael reynolds says:

    @Jim Brown 32:
    The Trump administration has zero will and even less ability to manage this or any other crisis. Trump doesn’t manage crises, he creates them. The idea of this clown college doing anything about Guatemala or Salvador that doesn’t just make things worse, is a non-starter. The very best we could hope for is NGO-run refugee camps until we get a functioning government in Washington.

    The asylum workers for ICE are petitioning the court of appeals to end what they say is a dangerous, inhumane policy that violates core American values. But you just keep regurgitating your cultie talking points while children are caged, lying in their own shit, terrified and alone, so that creeps like you can rid the country of the brown faces that make you uncomfortable. Again: you’re scum, you and all the rest of your nasty, cruel bunch. Where are your kids, Drew? Can I cage them for a while?

  33. wr says:

    @Guarneri: Thank you for explaining why you believe this two year old and her father deserved to die.

  34. Teve says:

    @wr: you gotta wonder what went wrong in G’s life that made him decide to act like this.

  35. Guarneri says:

    “Former President Barack Obama’s top immigration chief in charge of removing illegal immigrants said that the “cages” Democrats have accused President Trump of housing children in were the brainchild of the Obama administration.

    “I’ve been to that facility, where they talk about cages. That facility was built under President Obama under (Homeland Security) Secretary Jeh Johnson. I was there because I was there when it was built,” said Thomas Homan, who was Obama’s executive associate director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement for nearly four years.”

    But keep up the filthy and grotesque propaganda, OTB.

  36. mattbernius says:


    But keep up the filthy and grotesque propaganda, OTB.

    Says the man who is too chicken shit to cite the propaganda sources he quotes from (i.e. the Daily Wire and the Washington Examiner).

    Oh and makes jokes about this entire situation.

  37. michael reynolds says:

    You swallow lies and vomit them here, all in service to your rapist, treasonous, corrupt racist pig of a cult leader. You wouldn’t let Trump spend an hour alone with your wife or kids, but so long as he’s shitting on brown and black people, no problem. How are you better than a compliant sieg-heiling Nazi in Germany 1940? Sick creep.

  38. An Interested Party says:

    Says the man who is too chicken shit to cite the propaganda sources he quotes from (i.e. the Daily Wire and the Washington Examiner).

    This is to be expected of a Trump supporter…

  39. @Guarneri:

    Oscar worked at a Papa Johns pizza restaurant, where he was earning $350 a month.

    They lived off his wage, limiting themselves to $10-a-day, because Tania had already quit her job as a cashier in a Chinese restaurant to care for Valeria, their only child.

    …They were not fleeing violence, Tania’s mother has since said, but were in desperate search of a life where they could earn more.

    Their plan was to spend a few years in America to save up enough money to eventually return to El Salvador and buy or build their own house.

    So, setting aside I am not even sure what you are quoting here, and stipulating that it is accurate for the sake of conversation, you are basically promoting the notion that this man and daughter got what they deserved because he was working at a pizza joint and had a long-term goal of going back to El Salvador.

    Do you hear yourself?

    You are so wrapped up in the simplicity of the illegality narrative that you are missing the basic humanity of the story.

    You are missing the fact that this man was no threat to you.

    You are missing that he wasn’t a rapist. He wasn’t a murdered. He wasn’t bringing drugs.

    He worked at a pizza place.

    What if we had a more rational way for people such as this to enter, work, pay taxes, and exit?

    Human beings seek to improve their lives. They will do desperate things to improve the lives of their children. Why can’t we be reasonable in the face of this fact?

    But sure, OTB is the one that has hit rock bottom.

  40. @Guarneri: Yes, facilities were constructed to deal with the wave of unaccompanied minors that came during the Obama admin. Yes, the Obama administration is not blameless.


    The Obama administration did not purposefully engage in a widespread practice of separating families to create a deterrent effect.

    Beyond that: even if we stipulate that the Obama administration did a host of bad things that they should be held accountable for, that does not forgive or give permission to what is going on right now.

    One doesn’t need to be a intellectual giant to comprehend what all our mother’s told us: two wrongs don’t make a right.

    Rock bottom, and grotesque, indeed.