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