Father-child death a symbol of migrant crisis at US border

The bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his nearly two-year-old daughter Valeria lying on the bank of the Rio Grande river in Matamoros, Mexico, on Monday after they drowned trying to cross the river to Brownsville, Texas.
The bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his nearly two-year-old daughter Valeria lying on the bank of the Rio Grande river in Matamoros, Mexico, on Monday after they drowned trying to cross the river to Brownsville, Texas.PHOTO: REUTERS
Salvadoran migrant Tania Vanessa Avalos with firefighters during a search for her husband Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and daughter Valeria.
Salvadoran migrant Tania Vanessa Avalos with firefighters during a search for her husband Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and daughter Valeria.PHOTO: REUTERS

MATAMOROS (Mexico) • Not even two years old, Valeria loved to dance, play with her stuffed animals and brush her family members' hair.

Her father Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez sold his motorcycle and borrowed money to move his family from El Salvador to the United States. Mr Martinez and his wife Tania Vanessa Avalos wanted to save up for a home there.

"They wanted a better future for their girl," Ms Maria Estela Avalos, Tania's mother, said.

The family travelled more than 1,000km seeking it. Once in the US, they planned to ask for asylum, for refuge from the violence that drives many Central American migrants from their homes every day.

But the farthest they got was an international bridge in Matamoros, Mexico.

On Sunday, they were told the bridge was closed and that they should try to cross it the next day. But they were desperate.

Standing on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, America looked within reach. Mr Martinez and Valeria waded in. And before the family made it to the other side, to Brownsville, Texas, the river waters pulled father and daughter under and swept them away.

  • 664k Number of people apprehended by US border patrol agents along the southern border so far this year.

    144% Increase in number of border arrests over last year.

The next day, a photo of their bodies among matted reeds was published by the Mexican newspaper La Jornada and later by the Associated Press, shocking the world in a viscerally clear moment of desperation and reminiscent of a 2015 photograph showing a three-year-old Syrian boy who lay drowned on a calm Mediterranean shore.

Mr Martinez and his daughter were met by twin disasters: fast-moving waters and an asylum system unprepared for the crush of Central Americans fleeing crime and poverty.

As the image rocketed across social media, it became a symbol of the large-scale humanitarian crisis at the border and, for some, a condemnation of the Trump administration's restrictive immigration policies.

One of those policies, the US customs practice known as "metering", has drastically reduced the number of migrants allowed to request asylum each day.

Record numbers of Central American migrants are reaching the US this year. US border patrol agents have apprehended 664,000 people along the southern border so far this year, a 144 per cent increase from last year, said Mr Brian Hastings, chief of law enforcement operations for the US Border Patrol.

The metering system to manage asylum flows puts daily limits on the number of asylum seekers processed at ports of entry, leading to weeks-long waiting lists in dangerous border towns.

The controls have contributed to growing numbers of migrants crossing the border illegally to hand themselves in to the authorities and ask for asylum.

Migrant rights activists say such limits on people's access to asylum can put them in harm's way, while driving immigration underground and squeezing it into new routes.

The harrowing photo of Mr Martinez and his daughter also became the focus of a debate over Mr Donald Trump's asylum policies.

US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called the image "horrific" and said the President's immigration clampdown made deaths more likely.

In turn, Mr Trump blamed the Democrats, who he said were blocking his government's attempts at closing "loopholes" in US law that encourage migrants to apply for US asylum. "If they fixed the laws, you wouldn't have that," he said.

The US Senate on Wednesday approved a US$4.6 billion (S$6.2 billion) Bill to address the migrant surge at the border with Mexico, setting up negotiations with the House of Representatives and Mr Trump over the funds and how they should be spent.

WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2019, with the headline 'Father-child death a symbol of migrant crisis at US border'. Print Edition | Subscribe