Valeria was a cheery child. Not even two years old, she loved to dance, play with her stuffed animals and brush her family members’ hair. Her father, Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez, was stalwart. Nearly always working, he sold his motorcycle and borrowed money to move his family from El Salvador to the United States. Martinez and his wife, Tania Vanessa Avalos, wanted to save up for a home there. They wanted safety, opportunity.
“They wanted a better future for their girl,” Maria Estela Avalos, Vanessa’s mother, says.
They travelled more than 1,000 miles seeking it. Once in the United States, they planned to ask for asylum, for refuge from the violence that drives many Central American migrants from their home countries every day.
However, the farthest the family 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. Martinez and Valeria waded in. But before they made it to the other side, to Brownsville, Texas, the river waters pulled the 25-year-old and his daughter under and swept them away.
The next day, a photo of their bodies among matted reeds, locked in a final embrace, was published by the Mexican newspaper La Jornada and later by the Associated Press, shocking the world with a viscerally clear moment of desperation reminiscent of a 2015 photograph showing a 3-year-old Syrian boy who lay drowned on a calm Mediterranean shore.
Martinez and Valeria 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.
“This particular incident highlights that there are many humanitarian tragedies resulting directly from our current immigration and border enforcement policies that are entirely unnecessary,” says Woodson Martin of Team Brownsville, a nonprofit group that travels to Matamoros every day to hand out food and water to waiting migrants. “We as a people are culpable in this, and we need to fix it.”
“The direct cause of the death of that father and daughter is the metering policy at the bridge,” he says.
In a news conference, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the Mexican president, called the migrants’ deaths “very regrettable”.
“We have always denounced that as there is more rejection in the United States, there are people who lose their lives in the desert or crossing” the river, he said.
“If we had the right laws that the Democrats are not letting us have, those people, they wouldn’t be coming up, they wouldn’t be trying,” he said.
Authorities detained more than 144,000 people at the border last month, as migration levels reached their highest point since 2006. Those record numbers, and a Rio Grande swollen from spring runoff, have made for especially perilous crossings in recent weeks.
Over the weekend, US border patrol agents found four bodies near a section of the river in Hidalgo County, west of Brownsville. Three of them were young children, the fourth was a woman in her early twenties. A local sheriff said they were found “in an area very well-known for immigrants crossing the river”.
In early May, border agents recovered the body of a 10-month-old boy and said they were searching for two other children and a man, all of whom went missing after their raft capsized as they tried to cross the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas.
Of the 283 migrant deaths that the US border patrol recorded at the southwest border last year, the largest share – 96 – perished in the Rio Grande Valley. Agents rescued another 4,300 who were “in danger and in some cases life-threatening situations” border-wide.
During a hearing on Wednesday about the US-Mexico border, American lawmakers said they hoped the photo “that all Americans woke up this morning looking at” would motivate congress to take action.
“I don’t want to see another picture like that on this border,” said Senator Ron Johnson, chair of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Johnson implored Republicans and Democrats to work together on solving what has proven to be a politically divisive issue.
“We have to do something,” he said.
For Democrats such as Senator Gary Peters, that means scrapping metering and the Trump administration policy that forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims are processed. More than 11,000 people have been returned to Mexico so far, according to government data provided to the committee.
“Does it make sense that if it’s more difficult to come across through a port of entry [to apply legally to enter the United States] ... that might actually increase the business for smugglers and cartels,” Peters asked Randy Howe, an executive director in the US Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations. “Is there a correlation there or not?”
“It’s difficult for me to say,” Howe responded.
Tom Homan, a former acting director of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has urged congress to close what he calls “loopholes” that encourage families to travel north with their children.
“The word’s out, you bring a child you probably won’t be detained at all. Because there’s hundreds of thousands of family units and 3,000 [detention] beds,” said Homan, who was on the scene in 2003 when 19 immigrants died after being trapped in a tractor trailer. “So, you know, I’ve said it many times ... if Congress doesn’t close the loopholes, more women will be raped, more children will die.”
It is unclear how long Martinez and his family would have had to wait to begin their asylum claim, but Martin of Team Brownsville says there is a list of several hundred people on any given day.
When they arrived in Matamoros on Sunday, they had been travelling through Mexico for two months, relatives say. And they may have had good reason to risk a river crossing, rather than stay in the border city.
“It’s a dangerous place to be a person, and it’s certainly a dangerous place to be a migrant,” Martin says.
Young women who travel there are often forced into sex work, while men are pressured to join gangs, he says. The US State Department advises its citizens to steer clear of the entire state of Tamaulipas, where Matamoros is located, “due to crime and kidnapping”.
Before they started their journey to the border, Vanessa called her mother to say the family was heading for the United States, and Estela was worried.
“I told them to pray as much as possible,” Estela says. “I asked God for nothing to happen to them, and for everything to go well. She assured me that they didn’t have far to go.”
The next time her daughter called, Estela could hardly understand her. She was screaming.
Now, the family in Tonacatepeque, El Salvador, is expecting the bodies of Martinez and Valeria to return home, she says. Mexican authorities recovered them on Monday morning, a few hundred yards from the international bridge. She hopes Vanessa will be back soon, too.
“I want to hug my daughter, she needs us,” Estela says. “I know she’s damaged, as are we, but she even more because she lost her little girl and her husband.”
© The Washington Post
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