Valeria was a cheery child. Not even 2 years old, she loved to dance, play with her stuffed animals and brush her family members’ hair. Her father, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, was stalwart. Nearly always working, he sold his motorcycle and borrowed money to move his family from El Salvador to the United States. Martínez and his wife, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, wanted to save up for a home there. They wanted safety, opportunity.
“They wanted a better future for their girl,” María Estela Ávalos, Vanessa’s mother, said in an interview.
And they traveled more than 1,000 miles seeking it. Once in the United States, they planned to ask for asylum, for refuge from the violence that drives many Central American migrants from their home countries every day. But the farthest the family got was an international bridge in Matamoros, Mexico. On Sunday, they were told the bridge was closed and that they should try to cross it the next day.
But they were desperate. Standing on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, America looked within reach. The family waded in. Before they made it to the other side, to Brownsville, Tex., the river waters pulled Martínez and Valeria under and swept them away.
The next day, a photo of their bodies among matted reeds was published by the Mexican newspaper La Jornada and later by the Associated Press, shocking the world in a viscerally clear moment of desperation and reminiscent of a 2015 photograph showing a 3-year-old Syrian boy who lay drowned on a calm Mediterranean shore.
Martínez and his daughter were met by twin disasters: fast-moving waters and an asylum system unprepared for the crush of Central Americans fleeing crime and poverty.
As the image rocketed across social media, it became a symbol of the large-scale humanitarian crisis at the border and, for some, a condemnation of the Trump administration’s restrictive immigration policies. One of those policies, the U.S. customs practice known as “metering,” has drastically reduced the number of migrants allowed to request asylum each day.
“This particular incident highlights that there are many humanitarian tragedies resulting directly from our current immigration and border enforcement policies that are entirely unnecessary,” said Woodson Martin of Team Brownsville, a nonprofit group that travels to Matamoros every day to hand out food and water to waiting migrants. “We as a people are culpable in this, and we need to fix it.”
“The direct cause of the death of that father and daughter is the metering policy at the bridge,” he said.
On Tuesday, two Democratic presidential candidates — both Texans — criticized the administration on Twitter.
“Absolutely heartbreaking,” Julián Castro wrote. “Families are fleeing desperate conditions to find refuge, only for the doors to be shut in their face. We need a more sensible, compassionate immigration system that doesn’t criminalize desperation.”
Beto O’Rourke said simply, “Trump is responsible for these deaths.”
“As his administration refuses to follow our laws — preventing refugees from presenting themselves for asylum at our ports of entry — they cause families to cross between ports, ensuring greater suffering & death,” he continued in another tweet. “At the expense of our humanity, not to the benefit of our safety.”
On Wednesday, the Vatican said Pope Francis had seen the image “with 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,” a spokesman said.
Neither the Department of Homeland Security nor U.S. Customs and Border Protection responded to requests for comment.