A searing photo of a migrant father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande River on the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas has gone viral, becoming the latest flashpoint in the issue of immigration at the southern border.
Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, 25, and his 23-month-old daughter Valeria drowned in the river trying to reach the U.S. border at Brownsville, Texas. According to reports, Martínez had crossed the river first, and turned around to get his wife, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, when his daughter Valeria saw him swimming away and jumped in after him, CNN reported.
A disturbing photo by Mexican journalist Julia Le Duc captured their bodies floating in the river near Matamoros, Mexico, just hours after their deaths on Monday.
“The father clung to the little girl in the red pants and black shoes, but a strong current swept over and drowned them,” Le Duc wrote in Mexican newspaper La Jornada.
Tania told the newspaper that she saw her husband and child drown. Their bodies were found by Mexican authorities downstream, locked in an embrace.
“It’s very hard to see that photograph,” Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas (D-Texas), chairman of the congressional Hispanic Caucus, told the New York Times. “It’s our version of the Syrian photograph — of the 3-year-old boy on the beach, dead. That’s what it is.”
The family, reportedly from El Salvador, had been waiting to receive political asylum, the newspaper said. They had been living in a migrant camp in Matamoros since Sunday, according to Tania.
Tania told La Jornada that they had obtained a humanitarian visa from the Mexican government, but faced overwhelmingly long waits at the U.S.-Mexico border for asylum seekers. They had been waiting in Mexico for two months in “scorching heat,” with temperatures up to 113 degrees Fahrenheit at times. The family decided to cross the river out of desperation.
Upon seeing the pictures, Pope Francis responded “with immense sadness,” the Vatican said.
“The Holy Father has seen the images of the father and his baby daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande River while trying to cross the border between Mexico and the United States,” Alessandro Gisotti, a Vatican spokesman, told the press.
“The Pope 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.”
“It is very unfortunate that this happens,” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said at a news conference. As migrants are being turned away from the U.S., “there are people who lose their lives in the desert or crossing the Rio Grande.”
PBS News Hour reported that almost 500,000 immigrants have been detained at the border since the start of 2019, resulting in overcrowding in holding centers. Migrant families trying to cross the border reached a peak in May, when 84,000 adults and children traveling together were apprehended.
A total of 283 migrant deaths were recorded along the 2,000-mile border last year, according to PBS. The death toll so far this year has not been released.