We Shouldn’t Be Surprised By the Drowning Deaths of a Father and Daughter in the Rio Grande

This is exactly what our immigration policy leads to

Credit: People

Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, drowned to death this week while crossing the Rio Grande river in an attempt to reach the U.S. shore and ask for asylum. After they were discovered on Monday, a photograph of their lifeless bodies went viral. In the photo, Óscar and Valeria appear facedown in the turbid water; Valeria’s little arm is clung around her father’s neck and both of their legs are floating out behind them. Their unsettled stillness calls to mind the power of an image to impact a policy debate, much like how in 2015 the photograph of the drowned Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi convinced a number of European Union nations to rethink their refugee policies (though ultimately the EU foisted more responsibility onto Turkey). Also like Kurdi’s photograph, the image of Óscar and Valeria brings home the impact of the moral failings of our immigration policy. But if we want to avoid such terrible deaths in the future, a few days of outrage isn’t enough.

The U.S. government counted 283 deaths along the border just last year; many other human remains were left unrecovered and not included in the total. The deaths of Óscar and Valeria — and the hundreds of others like them — is on us, the American public. U.S. policymakers and the voters who send them into office are responsible for writing and implementing policy that knowingly and deliberately imperils migrant lives.

Credit: STR/Getty Images

By failing to uphold both domestic and international asylum and refugee laws, U.S. immigration policy drives migrants to make deadly desert treks and dangerous river crossings, and is responsible for unquantifiable suffering. U.S. foreign policy — the violent interventionism of the cold war in Central America — and the ongoing neoliberal exploitation of Central America, as well as the exportation of the U.S. Drug War — has not only destabilized an entire region, but has prompted millions to flee their homes in search of life and dignity.

Óscar and his wife, Tania, didn’t put themselves and their daughter into a dangerous situation — we did.

For Óscar and Valeria, the river was the last resort. U.S. border officials working at bridges like the one in Matamoros, where the Ramírez family arrived a few days earlier, have been implementing a system of “metering” for about half a year. Instead of letting people cross and ask for asylum, border officers limit the number of people they let stake a claim. It’s disorderly, dangerous, and even deadly bureaucracy at work. The thousands who are left waiting for their turn to approach the port of entry have been languishing in squalid camps or dispersing among cheap hotels and overfilling shelters, in some of the most dangerous cities in Mexico. According to a recent report, there are nearly 20,000 people currently waiting to make asylum claims at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Asylum protocols are meant to keep people safe, not force them to survive a gauntlet before they are able to ask for protection.

When Óscar, Tania, and Valeria went last weekend to the bridge between Matamoros and Brownsville to ask for asylum, they were told that the bridge was closed. The family also learned that there were still over 1,500 people in line in front of them, all of whom were waiting to make asylum claims of their own. With border officials only processing about three claims a week in Brownsville, the current wait time is two to three months, at least. Turned away, facing a long delay in another dangerous border city, they looked to the river.

This type of metering — the U.S. asylum system’s weekend closure, or its inability to process new claims—pushes migrants and asylum seekers to seek remote and dangerous crossing points. Consider Border Patrol’s policy of Prevention Through Deterrence: Lawmakers know — and intend — for border crossings, even for those preparing to ask for asylum, to be treacherous. It’s part of their logic: making crossing so miserable migrants won’t even try. But, of course, they still do try.

The result of these policies is the image of Óscar and Valeria face down in the water. And they’re not the only ones. Just last weekend three children and a woman were found dead — likely from heat exposure — in the Rio Grande Valley. Earlier this month, a 9-year-old girl from India died while crossing the border in Arizona, in the same corridor where the Trump administration is prosecuting humanitarian aid workers for putting water out on migrant trails. Before that, another baby died by drowning in the same river.

Asylum protocols, at least in spirit, are meant to keep people safe, not force them to survive a gauntlet before they are able to ask for protection.

Recently, a righteous-sounding Mike Pence went on CNN to defend the Trump administration’s indefensible immigration policy after a recent report described a detention center for children in which kids had no access to clean clothes, showers, soap, or toothbrushes. Older kids in the detention center were taking care of their younger peers, some of whom had been left in dirty diapers. Kids were sleeping on the bare concrete floors, eating unpalatable food, and suffering from month-long colds. The Vice President needed to be cornered before admitting it’s wrong to lock up children like animals.

Pence claimed that asylum protections were a “loophole,” and that the “overwhelming majority” of people who are let into the country fail to show up for their asylum hearings. He’s wrong on both counts.

Asylum protections — enshrined to offer safe harbor to those fleeing persecution — are not a loophole. The 1980 Refugee Act codified domestic law to accord with the international Refugee Convention, which established protocols after World War II (and was expanded in the late sixties) in response to the worst humanitarian crisis in history and the international community’s unconscionable non-response to that crisis — denying refuge to Jews fleeing death camps, even turning around boats of desperate refugees. Seeking safety is not looking for a loophole. As for Pence’s other assertion, he’s wrong about his numbers: families seeking asylum attend approximately 99% of their hearings, according to the latest statistics.

These are families, like Óscar, Valeria, and Tania, who almost always go to court. If a judge had found them ineligible for asylum, they would have been ordered removed. That would have been a great hardship, but they would have still been a family. Instead, two of them are dead.

John Washington is a writer and translator focusing on immigration and criminal justice. His first book on US asylum history/policy is forthcoming from Verso.

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