Sometimes it takes an image of death or suffering to shock the public into thinking more deeply and critically about the policies their country carries out in their names.
Think of the so-called “Napalm girl,” the Vietnamese 9-year-old whose image was captured by an AP photographer running naked down the road, her clothing shredded by napalm.
Or think of the Syrian toddler whose limp body was found washed up on a Turkish beach. His family, fleeing their war-torn country, was trying to reach Greece when their boat capsized.
Our immigration policy on the southern border now has its image. It is the bodies of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his 23-month-old daughter Valeria, embraced in death, face down in the muck on the Mexican bank of the Rio Grande. Martinez and his daughter had left El Salvador, along with Martinez’ wife, who survived, in hopes of a better life in the United States.
Death is all too common a fate for migrants seeking to cross the border. But it’s something we don’t have to think about until the picture breaks our hearts.
Presidential candidate Julian Castro was among the first politicians to make a point out of the grief inspired by the image. He pointed out that political circumstances had a role in the father and daughter’s deaths. Specifically, there’s a law believes ought to be changed, which criminalizes the act of crossing the U.S. border without the proper documents. The law is part of the legal justification for separating parents from their children once border agents have detained them.
And, for a few days at least, we paid attention.
We learned about “metering” at the border, the Trump administration’s slow-rolling policy that has caused bottlenecks of desperate migrants on the Mexican side of the border, stopping them from legally accessing asylum.
Thanks to Castro, more of us know about Section 1325, which makes it a federal crime to enter the U.S. without the proper papers, a misdemeanor. Castro would like it to be a civil offense, which would not safeguard undocumented migrants from deportation but would limit some of the “zero tolerance” antics of the Trump administration.
It’s a good idea, and hopefully the Democrats will take it up, but it’s not exactly a trending story.
Most news reports, concerned primarily with the typical horserace handicapping of the debate, breezed over the substance of Castro’s comments. Coverage was more about his emotion, and whether it was enough to seize more than a brief political moment.
If a photographer hadn’t been present to record the grim scene, Oscar and Valeria Martinez would not have become icons of Trump’s cruel policy at the border and of the decades-long Congressional impasse over comprehensive immigration reform.
Without context, Americans will see in the image what they want to see. Some will say Martinez was irresponsible to take such a risk with his family, that it’s his fault for not “doing it the right way.”
However, the fact is that they tried. Martinez and his family reached the international bridge at Matamoros, after traveling 1,000 miles to reach it. But the bridge was closed. Metering meant that hundreds of other migrants were ahead of them to cross and request asylum.
Their deaths were preventable, and not solely caused by their own actions.
The U.S.-Mexico border has always been a place of death and rebirth. It’s possible to die by dehydration, by freezing in the mountainous regions and by drowning.
Boldly or foolishly, depending upon your viewpoint, countless migrants have died crossing over the centuries. More may have perished by the time you read this. And it is quite possible that our memory of the death of this father and daughter will fade, and that policies won’t change and more bodies will accumulate.
It is in our power to change this, to do the right and humane thing. And Americans need to remember that the next time they cast a ballot.