Immigration

'He protected her': Mother's heartbreak over drowning of migrant son and granddaughter

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The mother of a Salvadoran man who drowned with his young daughter while trying to reach US soil, becoming a global symbol of the perils of migration, said she urged her son not to leave, fearing danger would meet him on the long journey north.

WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT

A harrowing photograph of Oscar Alberto Martinez and his toddler daughter Valeria lying face down on the banks of the Rio Grande river between the United States and Mexico ricocheted across social media this week and renewed debate in the United States about the plight of Central American migrants.

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.”

Rosa Ramirez cries when shown a photograph of her son Oscar Ramirez, granddaughter Valeria, nearly 2, and her daughter-in-law Tania Avalos
Rosa Ramirez cries when shown a photograph of her son Oscar Ramirez, granddaughter Valeria, nearly 2, and her daughter-in-law Tania Avalos
AAP

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.

“That was his dream, a good future for his family,” Ramirez said.

Exasperated by the wait to apply for asylum, the family attempted to swim to US soil on Sunday, an immigration official in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas said.

Tania Vanessa Avalos, Oscar’s wife, survived, screaming “Where is my husband?” as rescue workers at the river bank carried away a stretcher covered with a white sheet, video images show.

The photograph of Oscar and Valeria, nestled beside her father with her arm draped around his neck, drew comparisons to an iconic 2015 shot of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee, whose body washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean.

“It’s astonishing to see this photo,” Ramirez said, reflecting on the image of her son and granddaughter. “He never let her go. You can see how he protected her.”

The bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Ramrez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter Valeria lie on the bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico
The bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Ramrez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter Valeria lie on the bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico
AAP

The UN refugee agency said the photo from the US border represents “a failure to address the violence and desperation pushing people to take journeys of danger.”

Pope Francis expressed great sorrow upon viewing the image, said the Vatican, whose newspaper published the photograph on its front page.

Many asylum seekers at the border flee their homes in Central America to escape high levels of criminal violence.

Migrants such as Oscar and his daughter face long waits to apply for asylum at the United States’ shared border with Mexico as US officials enforce a policy of “metering,” which limits the number of people who can apply each day.

Tania Valos, center left, is assisted by Mexican authorities after her husband and two-year-old daughter were swept away while trying to cross the Rio Grande
Tania Valos, center left, is assisted by Mexican authorities after her husband and two-year-old daughter were swept away while trying to cross the Rio Grande (AAP)
AAP

That system has contributed to growing numbers of migrants crossing the border illegally to hand themselves into authorities and ask for asylum.

Mexican officials pledged to do more to halt the flow of migrants to the United States after US President Donald Trump threatened to slap tariffs on the country’s exports this month unless it tightened procedures.

The perils of the journey weighed heavily on Ramirez as Oscar and his young family set off for the United States, she said. Now, she said, her primary concern is bringing their bodies back home.

US officials told Congress on Wednesday that they did not have adequate staffing and facilities to handle the surge of migrants seeking asylum and made it harder to intercept drug smuggling and staff customs operations at ports of entry.

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