The Story Behind the Viral Photo of a Drowned Migrant Father and Toddler

The bodies of Salvadoran migrant Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter Valeria. Photo: Julia Le Duc/AP/Shutterstock/Julia Le Duc/AP/Shutterstock

Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, drowned Sunday in the Rio Grande. They’re not the first migrants to die in their attempt to reach U.S. soil, and they won’t be the last. But their story will likely become better known than others who failed to survive the journey because of the above photo, taken by journalist Julia Le Duc.

The image, which shows Martínez and Valeria face down near the bank of the river, the little girl tucked inside her father’s black T-shirt, was first published by the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. It spread on social media Tuesday and drew reactions from leaders in both Mexico and the U.S.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said it’s “very regrettable that this would happen.” Texas congressman Joaquin Castro, chairman of the House Hispanic Caucus, said it’s “very hard to see that photograph.” He also compared it to the 2015 image of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to reach Europe with his family.

The image of Kurdi drew attention to the Syrian refugee crisis and resulted in a 100-fold increase in donations to charities helping those affected by the conflict in Syria. Le Duc’s image has similarly grabbed the attention of the media and politicians. It remains to be seen if there will be any long-term impact of this tragic photo.

Martínez, his wife Tania Vanessa Ávalos, and their little girl are from El Salvador. After leaving their home country in April, and spending several months in southern Mexico, they ventured north in an attempt to enter the U.S. Over the weekend, they tried to apply for asylum at the international bridge in Matamoros, Mexico, but found offices closed and many ahead of them in line. So they decided to cross the Rio Grande.

Martínez first carried his daughter across the river and then went back for his wife. When the toddler saw her father swimming away, she jumped into the water after him. As Martínez tried to pull her out of the water, both were swept away by the current. Their bodies were found Monday a few hundred yards from where they attempted to cross.

“Will it change anything? It should,” Le Duc 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.”

The deaths of Martínez and Valeria come amid an onslaught of horrors near the border. A rash of recent migrant deaths has seen at least two babies, a toddler, and a 6-year-old die in the sweltering desert heat, the AP reports. Things are scarcely better once the migrants reach the U.S. One Border Patrol detention center in McAllen, Texas, was compared to “torture facilities” by a physician who examined children living there. Another facility in Clint, Texas, was called “inhumane” by independent monitors.

By Tuesday night, Le Duc’s photograph had gotten the attention of several Democratic presidential candidates, all of whom directed blame for their deaths toward President Trump.

Pointing a finger at the Trump administration makes sense. A series of administration policies, including the aggressive use of “metering,” which limits the number of asylum seekers allowed to make claims each day, has left thousands of desperate migrants stuck in northern Mexico. 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.

That, inevitably, has led to people dying. That’s not new, but we haven’t yet had dramatic photographic evidence of it splashed on the front pages of U.S. newspapers. Whether that will matter is hard to say, but the image is making people take notice of the humanitarian crisis at the border and the need to address it. As Ron Johnson, the Republican 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.”

The Story Behind the Viral Photo of Drowned Migrants