A photo of a father and his young daughter drowned in the Rio Grande is drawing global attention to the plight of migrants fleeing violence and poverty and hoping for asylum in the U.S.
WARNING: Graphic images.
MEXICO CITY (AP) — The man and his 23-month-old daughter lay face down in shallow water along the bank of the Rio Grande, his black shirt hiked up to his chest with the girl tucked inside. Her arm was draped around his neck suggesting she clung to him in her final moments.
The searing photograph of the sad discovery of their bodies on Monday, captured by journalist Julia Le Duc and published by Mexican newspaper La Jornada, highlights the perils faced by mostly Central American migrants fleeing violence and poverty and hoping for asylum in the United States.
According to Le Duc's reporting for La Jornada, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, frustrated because the family from El Salvador was unable to present themselves to U.S. authorities and request asylum, swam across the river on Sunday with his daughter, Valeria.
He set her on the U.S. bank of the river and started back for his wife, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, but seeing him move away the girl threw herself into the waters. Martínez returned and was able to grab Valeria, but the current swept them both away.
The account was based on remarks by Ávalos to police at the scene — "amid tears" and "screams" — Le Duc told The Associated Press.
Details of the incident were confirmed Tuesday by a Tamaulipas state government official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, and by Martínez's mother back in El Salvador, Rosa Ramírez, who spoke with her daughter-in-law by phone afterward.
"When the girl jumped in is when he tried to reach her, but when he tried to grab the girl, he went in further ... and he couldn't get out," Ramírez told the AP. "He put her in his shirt, and I imagine he told himself, 'I've come this far' and decided to go with her."
From the scorching Sonoran Desert to the fast-moving Rio Grande, the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border has long been an at times deadly crossing between ports of entry. A total of 283 migrant deaths were recorded last year; the toll so far this year has not been released.
In recent weeks alone, two babies, a toddler and a woman were found dead in the sweltering heat. Three children and an adult from Honduras died in April after their raft capsized on the Rio Grande, and a 6-year-old from India was found dead earlier this month in Arizona, where temperatures routinely soar well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
The photo has sparked conversations about the treatment of refugees around the globe. Here's a selection of some of those reactions.
Pope Francis saw the photos and was deeply saddened, a Vatican spokesman said.
"With immense sadness, 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," said the Vatican's interim spokesman, Alessandro Gisotti.
"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," Gisotti's statement added.
Francis has frequently been vocal in his support of Mexico's efforts to help migrants and critical of the U.S. for blocking them at the border. During a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border in 2016, he criticized then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, suggesting that anyone who wanted to build a wall along the border was "not a Christian."
In April, the pontiff donated $500,000 to help migrants in Mexico, offering assistance to local projects that provide food, lodging and basic necessities.
Congress' top Democrats said they hoped the photos would challenge the Trump administration's conscience while pressuring the president to ease his efforts to make it harder for people to enter the U.S. A top Republican said the photos should stir Congress to address the crisis on the border.
"This isn't who we are as a country. We have obligations to humanity that are being completely ignored," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told The Associated Press in a brief interview. "This is a manifestation of behavior that is outside the circle of civilized human behavior."
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer suggested that Martinez and his daughter might not have died had Trump agreed to Democratic efforts to help migrants fleeing Central American countries to enter the U.S. as refugees.
"How could President Trump look at this picture and not understand that these are human beings fleeing violence and persecution, willing to risk a perilous, sometimes failed journey in search of a better life," Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the Senate floor.
He added, "If our ports of entry were adequately staffed, we had enough asylum judges and our asylum laws respected, they might not have perished."
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, opened a hearing Wednesday saying the photo should propel Congress to act.
"I don't want to see another picture like that on the U.S. border," Johnson said.
"I hope that picture alone will catalyze this Congress, this Senate, this committee to do something," Johnson said. "It is well past time. And that picture that all Americans woke up this morning looking at, again should be used as a catalyst for that kind of action."
The congressional leaders spoke as the photographs rocketed around the internet and were used by news organizations usually hesitant to publish pictures of dead bodies.
They immediately caught the attention of a Congress trying to approve billions of dollars in humanitarian aid for the migrants streaming across the southern U.S. border.
Asked if the photos could alter the immigration debate, Pelosi said, "I would hope so, but we've had many challenges to conscience which haven't. But let's hope that this just tips the scale."
Democratic presidential candidates
The photos also spurred many of the Democratic presidential candidates to criticize U.S. immigration policy.
"Trump is responsible for these deaths," former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke said in a tweet that included a link to the photo.
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said the country needs to summon the political will to fix the immigration system. "If you can look at a picture like that and say that it is acceptable to continue doing what we've been doing, then I just don't understand," he said on MSNBC.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said on Facebook: "This is horrific. Trump's policy of making it harder and harder to seek asylum_and separating families who do_is cruel, inhumane and leads to tragedies like this. We must stop the deaths. We must restore humanity to our immigration system."
Julian Castro, a former housing secretary, also blamed the Trump administration.
"People see that photo and they might wonder, 'What can I do about that?' What you can do about it is push as hard as you can so that the Unites States government changes this policy of metering," Castro said in Miami, the sight of the first Democratic debates. "This administration is culpable."
President Donald Trump blamed Democrats for the death of the man and his daughter.
Asked about the photograph as he left the White House for a trip to Asia on Wednesday, Trump told reporters: "I hate it."
But he said the deaths could have been prevented and blamed Democrats for failing to pass legislation he claims would stop people from trying to make the dangerous trek.
Trump said the father was probably a "wonderful guy."
Rosa Ramirez, the man's mother
Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez's mother says she finds a heartbreaking photograph of their bodies hard to look at but also comforting for how they clung to each other in their final moments.
"You can see how he protected her, they died in each other's arms," Rosa Ramirez said.
"It's tough, it's kind of shocking, that image," Ramírez, told The Associated Press, speaking at their Salvadoran home. "But at the same time, it fills me with tenderness. I feel so many things because at no time did he let go of her."
Ramírez had shared the sea-green brick home with barred windows in San Martin on the outskirts of the capital, San Salvador, with her son, his wife, 21-year-old Tania Vanessa Ávalos and their daughter until the young family decided to make the journey north.
In their working-class neighborhood of about 40,000, Martínez worked in a pizzeria and Ávalos as a cashier in a fast-food restaurant, Ramírez said.
The area has had problems with gang violence but these days it "is calm," she said, adding that he never had any problems with gangs — they left for economic reasons.
Ramírez said that she had given them the big room in the two-bedroom house, but they dreamed of saving money for a place of their own and that drove the family to head for the United States in early April.
"I told him, 'Son, don't go. But if you do go, leave me the girl,'" Ramírez said.
"'No, mamá,'" she said he replied. "'How can you think that I would leave her?' He didn't have the courage to leave her.'"
Now she feels a hole that "nobody can fill, but God gives me strength," Ramirez said.
"I would say to those who are thinking of migrating, they should think it over because not everyone can live that American dream you hear about," Ramírez said.