A photo of a man and his daughter who drowned while trying to cross the river on the US-Mexico border has become the latest weapon in the battle over immigration between US President Donald Trump and the opposition Democrats.
Oscar Alberto Martinez, 25, and his two-year-old daughter Valeria were found on the banks of the Rio Grande on Monday, lying face-down in shallow water still clutching one another. A photo of them, taken by Julia Le Duc, was first published in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada – and then went viral across the US, where it was promptly weaponized in a bitter political battle.
Democrats immediately blamed Trump for their deaths, denouncing his policy of restricting the amount of asylum claims that can be processed at the points of entry. They also vowed not to approve any funding for border enforcement – including Trump’s border wall – and demanded that all the congressionally appropriated funds go exclusively to humanitarian aid for the detained migrants.
More than 600,000 people have crossed the US-Mexico border illegally just this year, overwhelming the detention centers operated by the US government. Congressional Democrats have cited news reports that these facilities lack soap and toothbrushes to claim they are inhumane, while some outspoken members of Congress – such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) – went so far as to say the government is running “concentration camps” for children.
“I hate it,” Trump said when he was asked about the photo on Wednesday. “But it can stop immediately if Democrats change the laws.”
Democrats control the House of Representatives and have enough votes in the Republican-controlled Senate to sink any immigration proposal they disapprove of – including Trump’s border wall, which prompted the president to fund its construction through an emergency declaration in February.
“They want to have open borders,” Trump said of Democrats, as he departed the White House for the G20 summit in Japan. He added:
Open borders mean people drowning in the rivers.
International reactions to the photo have focused on denouncing the US treatment of asylum-seekers, with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi saying the deaths “represent a failure to address the violence and desperation pushing people to take journeys of danger for the prospect of a life in safety and dignity.”
Pope Francis “is profoundly saddened by their deaths, and is praying for them and for all migrants who have lost their lives while seeking to flee war and misery,” Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said.
This is not the first time a photo from the border has been used to advocate for opening the US border to any and all comers, in the name of humanitarianism and helping refugees and asylum-seekers. Yet Martinez’s own mother confirmed that his family was not fleeing war or violence.
“I begged them not to go, but he wanted to scrape together money to build a home,” Rosa Ramirez told AP. “They hoped to be there a few years and save up for the house.”
After leaving their home in El Salvador in April, Martinez and his wife and daughter spent two months in a shelter in Guatemala, before crossing into Mexico. They decided to swim across the Rio Grande after being told they needed to register for a waiting list before they could apply for asylum at the Matamoros-Brownsville, a Mexican official told Reuters.
According to Mexican officials, Martinez first swam the river with Valeria, then went back to get his wife Tania Avalos. The girl threw herself into the river after her father, however, and both were swept away by the current.
As economic migrants, Martinez and his family most likely would have had their asylum claim rejected – once the US authorities got around to processing it, that is. With hundreds of thousands of migrants who show up on the border with children claiming asylum, US authorities have little choice under current rules but to detain them for several weeks in processing centers and then release them into the country’s interior, where they can effectively disappear.
Most of these migrants are from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, but not all; earlier this month the border patrol apprehended a group of migrants from central and south Africa – Congo, Cameroon and Angola – who had flown into South America and made the trek north.
On Tuesday, police in Nicaragua announced they had detained two Egyptians and two Iraqis, who they said were suspected members of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS).
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