A harrowing photo of a Salvadoran migrant and his young daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande at the U.S.-Mexico border became the focus on Wednesday of a U.S. political debate over President Donald Trump’s asylum policies.
The picture of Oscar Alberto Martinez, 25, and his 24-month-old daughter Angie Valeria put a renewed focus on the plight of refugees and migrants who are mostly from Central America. The pair had traveled from El Salvador and were seeking asylum in the United States.
U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called the image “horrific” and said the president’s migration clampdown made deaths more likely.
“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,” he wrote on Twitter.
In turn, Trump blamed the Democrats, whom he said were blocking his government’s attempts at closing “loopholes” in U.S. law that encourage migrants to apply for U.S. asylum.
“If they fixed the laws you wouldn’t have that. People are coming up, they’re running through the Rio Grande,” he said, referring to the river known as the Rio Bravo in Mexico that forms a large part of the border between the two countries.
“They can change it very easily so people don’t come up, and people won’t get killed,” Trump told reporters.
Record numbers of Central American migrants are reaching the United States this year despite a crackdown by Trump. Many flee their homes in Central America to escape poverty, drought and high levels of criminal violence, much of it carried out by street gangs.
U.S. border patrol agents have apprehended 664,000 people along the southern border so far this year, a 144 percent increase from last year, said Brian Hastings, chief of law enforcement operations for the U.S. Border Patrol. “The system is overwhelmed,” he said.
Deaths are not uncommon, with travelers exposed to violence from criminals as well as the treacherous waters of the Rio Grande and desert heat. On Tuesday, U.S. Border Patrol agents near Eagle Pass, Texas recovered a man’s body from another stretch of the river. Several more have drowned this year.
Border Patrol reported 283 migrant fatalities on the border in 2018. Activists say the number is higher as the remains of many migrants who die in rugged stretches of wilderness along the 1,950-mile (3,138-km) long border are never found.
To manage asylum flows, the United States has in recent years implemented a system known as “metering” which puts daily limits on the number of asylum seekers processed at ports of entry, leading to weeks-long waiting lists in dangerous border towns.
The controls have contributed to growing numbers of migrants crossing the border illegally to hand themselves in to authorities and ask for asylum. Migrant rights activists say such limits on people’s access to asylum can put them in harm’s way, while driving migration underground and squeezing it into new routes.
Enrique Maciel, director of the migrant agency of the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, said the Martinez family had decided to cross the river after being told they needed to register for a waiting list to apply for asylum at the Matamoros-Brownsville port of entry.
Martinez’ mother on Wednesday told Reuters she had urged her son not to leave, fearing danger would meet him on the long journey north.
The photo of Martinez and his toddler daughter — face down in the mud on the river bank, with her arm draped around his neck — has gone viral on social media around the world.
The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, put the picture on its front page and Pope Francis expressed “immense sadness.”
“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,” Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said.