In Depth

US-Mexico migration crisis: can shocking photograph trigger policy change?

Image of drowned migrant father and toddler daughter provokes widespread anger

This article contains a photograph that some readers will find distressing

A horrifying photograph of a drowned migrant father and his young daughter at the US-Mexico border has been compared to the image of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi that swung opinion on the European migrant crisis four years ago.

Oscar Alberto Ramirez drowned in the Rio Grande on Sunday along with his daughter Valeria, who would have turned two in a month, as the child’s mother, Tania, watched helplessly from the bank.

The family, from El Salvador, were trying to cross the river to start a new life in the US. According to CNN, Mexican newspaper La Jornada (Spanish language) says they had been given a humanitarian visa by the Mexican government to enter Mexico.

CNN reports that Ramirez managed to get his daughter safely across the river, leaving his wife on the Mexican side. When he returned to the water to help his wife cross, Valeria jumped in after him. He tried to save her, says the broadcaster, but the pair drowned.

Their bodies were found near Matamoros, on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, just over the water from the Texan city of Brownsville. Photographer Julia Le Duc captured the pair lying dead in the river on Monday, says US political site The Hill.

The horrifying image shows father and daughter lying face down in the murky water, their heads covered by Ramirez’s T-shirt.

 
What has the reaction been?

Immigration is a divisive topic in the US, largely because President Donald Trump has chosen to make opposition to it a keystone of his presidency. He pledged to build a wall on the US-Mexico border to keep would-be immigrants out and claimed that many were “rapists”.

Earlier this month, Trump used the threat of imposing tariffs on Mexican imports as leverage to try to force Mexico to prevent migrants making the trek across Mexico to the US.

Most recently, holding centres for immigrants in the US have been compared controversially to concentration camps.

What difference will this photograph make?

According to The Hill, the image has already sparked “viral outrage… from a number of journalists and activists” and caused a “backlash across social media”. CNN says that “presidential candidates”, specifically, have been vocal about the photograph.

Democratic presidential wannabe Kamala Harris wrote: “These families seeking asylum are often fleeing extreme violence… Children are dying. This is a stain on our moral conscience.”

Another Democratic candidate, Beto O’Rourke, wrote: “Trump is responsible for these deaths. As his administration refuses to follow our laws… they cause families to cross between ports, ensuring greater suffering and death.”

Asked about the image yesterday, Mexican President Andres Obrador said it was “very regrettable that this would happen”, reports The Hill. He added: “We have always denounced that as there is more rejection in the United States, there are people who lose their lives in the desert or crossing.”

Who was Alan Kurdi?

Alan Kurdi was a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned while trying to escape the civil war to safety in Europe. His body washed up on a beach in Turkey and a photograph of it sparked renewed debate about Europe’s responsibility to asylum seekers in the late summer of 2015.

One year after his death, the BBC asked if the image had really changed anything. The broadcaster noted that several Western governments had announced policy shifts after the image went viral, significantly Germany, where half a million refugees were taken in in 2016.

However, Alan’s aunt Tima told the BBC she did not believe his death made a lasting difference. She said: “The sad part is it was only the first few months probably and then everybody went back to business.”

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