A single photograph of a man from El Salvador and his 23-month-old daughter, drowned in the Rio Grande illustrates the immensity of the horror unfolding at the border between Mexico and the United States. The tragedy captured in the photo is no anomaly. At the border, dying is an everyday thing.
Abraham Pineda Jácome, a photographer for the Spanish news agency EFE, told me in an interview that he and three other journalists had found the bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez and his daughter Valeria on the Mexican side of the river, in the city of Matamoros. Both were lying face down in the water, the girl snug against her fathers shoulder, one arm wrapped around his neck.
Photos of Óscar and Valeria lying lifeless in the river recently went viral on social media and have now been seen around the world. They are strikingly reminiscent of the photo of Alan Kurdi, the 2-year-old Syrian refugee who was found dead, washed up on a Mediterranean shore, in 2015.
For thousands of refugees and immigrants, the Rio Grande is every bit as dangerous as the Mediterranean Sea. Nobody will ever know exactly what happened to Óscar and his daughter in that river. They were traveling with Tania Óscars wife and Valerias mother and their plan was to cross over to the U.S. side. All we know is that the currents were too strong, and that father and daughter drowned. Their bodies were recovered only after several hours of searching.
Óscar, Tania and Valeria had left El Salvador, like thousands of other Central Americans, to escape the extreme poverty and violence of their homeland. They managed to get as far as Matamoros, where they were hoping to enter the United States, but were daunted by the long and complex process of applying for asylum that awaited them. Finding the international bridge temporarily closed, the family decided to take matters into their own hands, and on June 23, Óscar, Tania and Valeria climbed into the river. Tania eventually turned back to the Mexican side, but Óscar and Valeria were swept under by the rough waters.
We will never know if Óscar and his family would have had valid reasons for receiving political asylum in the United States. The process is designed to be as difficult as possible. Only a few dozen applications are processed at U.S. ports of entry each day. And under the current agreement between the Mexican and American governments, asylum-seekers must wait in Mexico not the United States for months, even years, while their claims are processed.
Mexico and the United States are making life nearly impossible for Central American migrants, and yet they continue to make the journey north. Immigrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have told me that theyd rather risk being detained in the United States than stay in their home countries any longer. Many feel they have no choice but to risk their lives crossing rivers, deserts and mountains. No father and daughter should face death just because theyre immigrants.
Unfortunately, hundreds of Óscars and Valerias continue to die at the border every year. They attempt to cross along the most dangerous stretches, where there are no walls to stop them, and many drown or die from dehydration. There are no pictures of these migrants; in many cases, theres not any record. All thats left behind is a piece of sun-damaged clothing or a scrap of wet paper.
What happened to Óscar and Valeria isnt unusual. The U.S. Border Patrol recorded 7,505 deaths between October 1997 and September 2018. This means that, on average, over 350 immigrants die at the Mexico-U.S. border each year.
Óscars and Valerias deaths will be added to the statistics for 2019. Their tragedy reveals just how bad things have gotten: Today, Central Americas most vulnerable families are forced, with government consent, to travel the most dangerous routes to the prospect of safety.
Migration is a complex and controversial topic. It divides families, governments and countries. However, I think we can all agree that a 23-month-old girl should not have to die in order to escape poverty and violence. There is only one word that describes what happened to her and her dad: horror.