Pictures can move us in ways that words cannot and it is hard to find the right words for the photograph of Óscar Ramírez and his 23-month old daughter that went viral this week. Ramirez and his daughter, Valeria, drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande. Ramirez's wife, who successfully crossed before them, reportedly watched helplessly from the other side.
Their story became a part of our national story this week, and it was not surprising to hear NBC anchor Jose Diaz-Balart bring it up during the Democratic primary debate last night:
DIAZ-BALART: We saw that image today that broke our hearts, and they had names. Oscar Martinez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, died trying to cross the river to ask for asylum in this country. Last month, more than 130,000 migrants were apprehended at the southern border.
Secretary Castro, if you were president today, hoy, what would you specifically do?
Julian Castro - who has compared the photo to that of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean in 2015 and became a symbol of the European migrant crisis - promised to undo President Trump's executive enforcement actions, decriminalize illegal entry to the U.S., grant "undocumented" immigrants amnesty, and then "get to the root cause of the issue, which is we need a Marshall Plan for Honduras and Guatemala and El Salvador so that people can find safety and opportunity at home instead of coming to the United States to seek it."
The others on stage followed suit. Stephen Dinan reports:
Few candidates had specific answers other than to do more nation-building in Central America, saying they wanted to try to erase the conditions that are pushing people to leave.
None of them had suggestions for how to change the pull factors that draw the migrants to the U.S. and entice them to jump the border, believing - usually correctly - that they will gain a foothold here.
The best way to help the billions of poor and vulnerable in the world is to help them where they live.
The best way to prevent border surges and migrant crises is to remove the incentives and close the loopholes. "Oscar and his family left El Salvador in April, hoping to find work"
The moderators missed numerous opportunities to press the candidates on what they would do to address the incentives and loopholes at the heart of the border crisis. In that sense, the debate last night reflected the ongoing failure of the political elite to stop the surge of children and families that began more than five years ago.
"Oscar and his family left El Salvador in April, hoping to find work"
It is always dangerous to make policy based on anecdote. But human beings rely on stories to make sense of the world so we naturally see Valeria Ramirez and Aylan (or "Alan" according to later reports) Kurdi as not only tragic focal points of viral photographs but people whose lives (and deaths) have something to teach us.
In both cases, the immediate response from the political class was to call on nations to make it easier for more migrants to cross borders. In both cases, emerging details challenged that view.
Ultimately, Aylan's story proceeded calls from notable elites like Bill Gates to urge Europe to make it more difficult for economic migrants to reach the continent. Europe's "generosity," Gates argued, only encouraged more to unnecessarily undertake life-threatening journeys.
Like Aylan's father - who was safe but poor in Turkey - Valeria's father was seeking better economic opportunities for himself and his family. They were not, as the political class implied, fleeing political persecution or violence. Nelson Renteria reports:
Speaking with Reuters from her home in the central municipality of San Martin, Rosa Ramirez, Oscar’s mother, cradled two of her granddaughter’s most treasured toys, a blue-eyed baby doll and a stuffed purple monkey. Her friends have urged her to store her son and granddaughter’s belongings, but she is not ready for that yet.
"Ever since he first told me that they wanted to go, I told him not to," Ramirez said, recalling conversations with her son. "I had a feeling, it was such an ugly premonition. As a mother, I sensed that something could happen."
Despite his mother’s pleas, Oscar and his family left El Salvador in April, hoping to find work in the United States and eventually buy a house, Ramirez said.
Oscar left for economic reasons. He dreamed for more. He had good reason to think that the risk would be worth it. Stephen Dinan:
Looking for a better job is not usually a reason to win asylum in the U.S. - but current U.S. policies allow people to make bogus asylum claims, then get released into the U.S. while their cases are heard.
More than 80% won’t win their cases, but they do gain a foothold here and many then ignore their deportation orders after they lose their case. Homeland Security doesn’t have the personnel - or, in most cases, the willpower - to attempt to deport them.
Oscar Ramirez was not trafficking drugs. He wasn't a human trafficker. He was a young man who aspired to something more than his job at a pizzeria and a room in his mother's house. He thought the U.S. offered the best opportunity. He wouldn't meet the enforcement priorities of most U.S. administrations, including those of the candidates who spoke last night who also promised U.S. citizenship to people in the U.S. illegally as long as they haven't committed "serious" crimes. Had they survived, Oscar and Valeria would likely have qualified for a "path to citizenship" under a future proposal, she as a "DREAMer" and he as "an otherwise law-abiding" unauthorized migrant. Most likely, they would have been good neighbors, good citizens. They might have achieved some version of their American dream.
It's a seductive narrative - Oscar must have heard or read many stories just like it - and a deadly one. Oscar's mother, Rosa, wants to tell people like her son a different story:
I would say to those who are thinking of migrating, they should think it over because not everyone can live that American dream you hear about. We can put up a fight here. How much I would like to have my son and my granddaughter here. One way or another, we get by in our country.
That's a story that can save lives and help countries hold on to their brightest lights (sorry Mr. President, migrants like Oscar are often among the most promising sending countries have to offer) who might not only "get by" but could be the change agents who help make their country the place where their dreams come true.
JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA
Updated: Thu, Jul 11th 2019 @ 5:05pm EDT