The shocking image of a father and daughter from El Salvador lying face down in the water of the Rio Grande serves as a searing reminder of the dangers migrants face when fleeing the violence and poverty in their home countries.
It also puts a spotlight on what advocates have long been warning: As it gets harder to apply for asylum in the United States, migrant deaths along the southern border will increase.
The photo, captured by journalist Julia Le Duc, and published by Mexican newspaper La Jornada, shows the toddler tucked into her father’s shirt, her arm slung around his neck. Surrounding them in the water are some reeds and a discarded bottle and beer cans.
According to Le Duc’s reporting for La Jornada, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-old-month daughter — identified by officials from El Salvador as Angie Valeria M. — drowned in the Rio Grande on Sunday, as they were trying to enter the United States. Martinez had reportedly crossed the river with his daughter once, and upon reaching the other side, placed her down on the U.S. side of the river and went back to help his wife, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, cross the river. Angie Valeria, however, seeing her dad leave, threw herself back in the water to try to reach him. Martínez Ramírez was able to grab her, but the two drowned when they got caught in a current between Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas.
Ávalos later recounted the heartbreaking story to police at the scene, “amid tears” and “screams,” Le Duc told the Associated Press.
“They wanted a better future for their girl,” María Estela Ávalos, Tania Vanessa Ávalos’ mother, told The Washington Post Wednesday.
The tragic photo has reminded many of Syrian 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who was found facedown on a Turkish beach in 2015, after drowning in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to reach Europe from Syria. His photo caused an outpouring of international concern, and he quickly became a symbol for the war in Syria, as well as Europe’s poor handling of the refugee crisis.
This time, the attention is on the U.S. immigration system.
As Le Duc reported, Martínez Ramírez and his family swam across the river after they grew frustrated at being unable to present themselves to U.S. authorities and request asylum. Requesting asylum is legal, and migrants have the right to do so without being criminalized, rejected, or separated from their families.
Before they decided to cross the river, Ávalos told La Jornada, the family had been staying at a migrant camp on the Puerta Mexico bridge for two months while waiting for an appointment to seek asylum.
Of course, the flaws in the U.S. immigration system — and the reasons people flee their homes to seek refuge elsewhere — goes beyond any one official or administration. Migrants have been dying on their journeys to the United States for some time. But a series of policies by the Trump administration, including what’s known as “metering” and “Remain in Mexico,” have made requesting asylum harder than before.
Metering restricts the number of asylum seekers allowed to present themselves at ports of entry. Metering varies at each port of entry, but the intent of the policy, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), is to manage the flow of migrants if there isn’t space available in its processing facilities.
While that may be an understandable intention, that means the wait for most migrants seeking asylum can be weeks or months long. Last fall, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general office issued a report noting that the office found “evidence that limiting the volume of asylum-seekers entering at ports of entry leads some aliens who would otherwise seek legal entry into the United States to cross the border illegally.”
One woman apprehended by Border Patrol, who was cited in the inspector general’s report, said she had been rejected by an officer three times before she decided to try to enter the United States illegally.
People walk past migrants camped out waiting to declare asylum on the Paso Del Norte Bridge on November 4, 2018 in El Paso, Texas. (Photo credit: PAUL RATJE/AFP/Getty Images)
“Remain in Mexico,” formally known as the Migration Protection Protocols, requires asylum seekers to be returned to Mexico while they wait for their hearing before a judge in immigration court. As ThinkProgress previously reported, while migrants are meant to be issued a 45-day notice to appear before a judge, many asylum seekers are given court dates for 2020. In the meantime, those seeking refuge are even more vulnerable, stuffed in overcrowded shelters in Mexico and often separated from their families.
More than 15,000 asylum seekers have been returned to Mexico under the policy, a Mexican government official told CBS News Tuesday.
As Mexico also ramps up its immigration enforcement, under the threat of more tariffs from the Untied States, many migrants have faced increasing violence. As the Post reported, earlier this month, a 19-year-old Salvadoran woman who wanted to reunite with her dad in California was shot and killed by Mexican police while trying to travel to the United States and apply for asylum.
Remain in Mexico is currently enforced at the ports of entry at El Paso, Calexico, and San Diego, though after Trump’s tariffs threat earlier this month, it is expected to be expanded along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.
A series of other policies that aren’t currently in effect show the Trump administration’s intent to crack down on asylum seekers. In November, for example, Trump signed a 90-day asylum ban, deeming people ineligible for asylum if they crossed into the United States illegally. Last June, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a ruling to make it harder for victims of domestic violence and gang violence to seek asylum. Sessions claimed these were “private violence” incidents, whereas asylum was meant for victims of political persecution. Both these policies were later blocked in court.
In April, Trump ordered major changes to asylum policies, including requiring migrants to pay fees for seeking refuge and preventing anyone who crosses the border illegally from obtaining a work permit. The order has not yet gone into effect. In May, Trump was reportedly considering a plan to block any migrant from seeking asylum in the United States if they had resided in another country other than their own before entering. The plan would affect the thousands of Central American migrants waiting at the border.
Meanwhile, Trump has cut refugee admissions every year he has been in office. In the current 2019 fiscal year, there is an admissions ceiling of just 30,000 refugees, the lowest in the history of the program. For comparison, the cap was 110,000 during former President Barack Obama’s last year in office. It’s not even clear the new cap will be reached at all. Eight months into the fiscal year, the United States has only accepted 18,051 refugees, according to the International Rescue Committee.
And while much of the focus is on Central American migrants, due to geography, the problem is much bigger. Earlier this month, the body of a 6-year-old girl from India was found in the Arizona desert after she and her mom crossed into the United States from Mexico. Her dad lives in the United States and has reportedly had an asylum application pending since 2013.
“We wanted a safer and better life for our daughter and we made the extremely difficult decision to seek asylum here in the United States,” her parents later said in a statement released by the nonprofit Sikh Coalition. “We trust that every parent, regardless of origin, color or creed, will understand that no mother or father ever puts their child in harm’s way unless they are desperate.”
Trump, for his part, showed little indication of being moved to change his administration’s policies when asked about the photo on Wednesday.
“I hate it. And I know it could stop immediately if the Democrats change the law,” he said, after stressing the need for a border wall. “They have to change the laws.”
A border wall does not address the root causes of migration — things like persecution, violence, war, and increasingly in Central America, climate change. Meanwhile, the Senate is set to reject a $4.5 billion emergency aid bill the House passed on Tuesday, meant to help migrants housed in horrific conditions in U.S. detention centers. The White House has also signaled that Trump would veto the bill, which requires CBP to create new health and safety standards for migrants in its custody and sets a time limit of 90 days for unaccompanied children detained in “influx” shelters.