The man and his 23-month-old daughter lay face down in shallow water along the bank of the Rio Grande, his black shirt hiked up to his chest with the girl tucked inside. Her arm was draped around his neck suggesting she clung to him in her final moments.
The searing photograph of the sad discovery of their bodies on Monday, captured by journalist Julia Le Duc and published by Mexican newspaper La Jornada, highlights the perils faced by mostly Central American migrants fleeing violence and poverty and hoping for asylum in the United States.
According to Le Duc’s reporting for La Jornada, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, frustrated because the family from El Salvador was unable to present themselves to U.S. authorities and request asylum, swam across the river on Sunday with his daughter, Valeria.
He set her on the U.S. bank of the river and started back for his wife, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, but seeing him move away the girl threw herself into the waters. Martínez returned and was able to grab Valeria, but the current swept them both away.
The account was based on remarks by Ávalos to police at the scene — “amid tears” and “screams” — Le Duc told The Associated Press.
“I was drawn to the girl’s arm on her father,” Le Duc said as she described arriving at the scene. “It was something that moved me in the extreme because it reflects that until her last breath, she was joined to him not only by the shirt but also in that embrace in which they passed together into death.”
Rosa Ramírez, Martínez’s mother, said her son and his family left El Salvador on April 3 and spent about two months at a shelter in Tapachula, near Mexico’s border with Guatemala.
“I begged them not to go, but he wanted to scrape together money to build a home.”
“They hoped to be there a few years and save up for the house.”
The image has been compared to the 2015 photo of a drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey.
In recent weeks alone, two babies, a toddler and a woman were found dead, overcome by the sweltering heat; elsewhere three children and an adult from Honduras died in April after their raft capsized on the Rio Grande; and a 6-year-old from India was found dead earlier this month in Arizona, where temperatures routinely soar well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
El Salvador’s foreign ministry said it was working to assist the family including Ávalos, who was at a border migrant shelter following the drownings. The bodies were expected to be flown to El Salvador on Thursday.
Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said it was "very regrettable that this would happen.
“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” the river.
As news of the image spread, US presidential candidates blamed the deaths on the Trump administration.
Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris called the situation "inhumane".
These families seeking asylum are often fleeing extreme violence. And what happens when they arrive? Trump says, 'Go back to where you came from.' That is inhumane. Children are dying. This is a stain on our moral conscience. https://t.co/NHly7QTiAq— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) June 26, 2019
"These families seeking asylum are often fleeing extreme violence," she tweeted. "And what happens when they arrive? Trump says, 'Go back to where you came from.' That is inhumane. Children are dying. This is a stain on our moral conscience."
Her fellow Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, from the border city of El Paso in Texas, tweeted: "Trump is responsible for these deaths."
Trump is responsible for these deaths. https://t.co/UZirFjh3fm— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) June 26, 2019
He added: "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. At the expense of our humanity, not to the benefit of our safety."