Editor's note: This article contains a graphic photo below. Reader discretion is advised.
SALT LAKE CITY — A photo showing a Salvadoran father and his 23-month-old daughter lying dead, face down in murky water along the banks of the Rio Grande, has revived concern about the dangers immigrants face.
The photo has been widely shared on social media. Everyone from U.S. presidential candidates to Pope Francis has expressed sorrow over the tragic story the photo tells. But will this moment of grief be enough to change the immigration debate?
“Will it change anything? It should,” journalist Julia Le Duc, who took the photo, told The Guardian. “These families have nothing, and they are risking everything for a better life. If scenes like this don’t make us think again — if they don’t move our decision-makers — then our society is in a bad way.”
But Andrew Arthur, a resident fellow in law and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., said the photo is more likely to reaffirm what people think about the immigration debate already, regardless of their point of view.
"For many Democrats, this is proof that our border policy is heartless and needs to be reformed. For conservatives, this underscores that this is a perilous journey and parents are subjecting children to serious dangers when they try and take them to the United States," said Arthur. He said policies like the Flores Settlement Agreement actually encourage parents to put their children in danger. According to that policy, migrant children who enter the United States, even when accompanied by parents, must be released from immigration detention within 20 days. Arthur says many families find ways to stay in the U.S. without documentation upon their release.
"It's heartbreaking and it should be heartbreaking. Again, both sides are pointing fingers at the other one saying, this is the result you wanted," said Arthur.
Graphic photo below.
The photo shows Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, who was 25, with his daughter Valeria in the hours after the pair attempted to cross from Mexico to the United States. Her head is tucked inside his shirt and her tiny arm draped over his neck. They were fleeing poverty in El Salvador with a plan to apply for asylum in the U.S., according to The New York Times.
Martínez's wife, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, told officials her husband and daughter made it across the river on the first attempt. But when he tried to go back for his wife, the toddler tried to follow and fell into the water. She said her husband grabbed the toddler, but the two were swept away by the strong current, according to news reports.
It's not the first photo to capture the world's attention and help people see the personal suffering endured by individuals affected by international or national conditions or events.
Photos of a starving child in Sudan with a vulture hovering nearby in 1993, a firefighter cradling an injured girl after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, a drowned 3-year-old Syrian refugee boy on the Mediterranean Sea shore in 2015, have inspired sympathy for those facing famine, war and violence. Each photo galvanized public interest in finding solutions for big problems.
"Of course the images matter because they help us tell a story about precisely what is happening and the grave danger people are in," said Layla Razavi, policy director at the California Immigrant Policy Center.
"What we really need are federal and state policies that uphold the humanity of immigrants and everyone coming to our country," Razavi added.
A series of "remain in Mexico" policies, including the use of “metering,” which limits the number of asylum-seekers allowed to make claims each day, has left thousands of immigrants stuck in northern Mexico, according to New York Magazine. In addition, the administration’s use of the Border Patrol and military troops to prevent asylum-seekers from reaching ports of entry has had a chilling effect on established asylum processes.
"As they wait to make their asylum claims, some reach a point of desperation and attempt to enter the U.S. via the desert or by crossing the Rio Grande," New York Magazine reported. "That, inevitably, has led to people dying."
Democratic presidential candidates were vocal in blaming the Trump administration.
While people may disagree about the root cause and potential solutions, there's consensus that something should be done to prevent deaths like those of the father and child in the photo.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said at a hearing Wednesday, “I don’t want to see another picture like that on the U.S. border. We need to start doing something. It’s well past time," according to CNN.
Even Pope Francis reacted to the photo.
“The pope is profoundly saddened by their death, and is praying for them and for all migrants who have lost their lives while seeking to flee war and misery,” Alessandro Gisotti, the Vatican’s interim spokesperson, told reporters Wednesday.
As the photo was shared Tuesday, Democrats in the House were moving toward approval of an emergency $4.5 billion humanitarian aid bill to address the plight of asylum-seekers at the border, The New York Times reported.
Razavi suggested that states can follow the example of California, which is investing $25 million in the operation of four shelters near the border so migrants can be provided with clean and comfortable conditions, medical screening, showers and food while they await processing.
Earlier this week, the acting head of the Customs and Border Protection agency, John Sanders, resigned amid reportsthat older children were caring for toddlers at a facility in Clint, Texas, and that they lacked adequate food, water and sanitation, according to USA Today.
"Most Americans really want to be helpful and welcoming and have empathy for the people fleeing violence. I don't think the majority of Americans want to see this happening," Razavi said.
Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, told Fox News that while the photo is “heartbreaking,” lawmakers and activists need to focus on reducing the flow of immigrants by working with Mexico and the Central American countries to discourage illegal immigration.
“Of course we should provide adequate care to migrants who come into our custody, but the real goal must be to end the policies that are encouraging people to make the dangerous choice of trying to come here illegally,” she said.
Attempts to cross the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border between ports of entry have long been perilous. A total of 283 immigrant deaths were recorded last year, Fox News reported.
Totals for this year have not yet been released, but in recent weeks two babies, a toddler and a woman succumbed to sweltering heat in the Rio Grande Valley, three children and an adult died after their raft capsized on the Rio Grande, and a 6-year-old from India was found dead in Arizona.
"Very regrettable that this would happen," Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Tuesday, according to Fox News. "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)."
Salvadoran Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexandra Hill pleaded with citizens of El Salvador to stay in the country and work with the government as it tries to solve the economic issues that cause many to migrate north, CNN reported.
"I beg you, to all the families, parents, don't risk it. Life is worth a lot more," Hill said, according to CNN's report.33 comments on this story
One solution Arthur suggests Republicans and Democrats could come together on is allowing people to file for claims of asylum in their own countries so they can avoid making the dangerous journey.
"Still, there would have to be some assurance that people who are denied asylum don't just turn around and do the same thing this family did," Arthur said.
"No one makes that journey unless the quality of life or fear they face in their own country merits taking a huge risk and putting both themselves and their children in harm's way in order to get to safety," said Razavi. "We have to start the conversation from that point."