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Photo of drowned father and daughter sparks new calls to deal with immigration crisis

Posted at 4:13 PM, Jun 26, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-26 17:13:57-04

It's a single, haunting photograph that tells a horrible story, and almost two thousand miles away, may have a critical impact on the deadlocked immigration debate in Washington.

The father is seen lying face down in Rio Grande river near Brownsville, Texas -- his 23-month old daughter's arm around his neck -- both dead after authorities said they drowned on Monday trying to cross from Mexico into the U.S.

Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramirez had reportedly ferried his daughter, Valeria, to the U.S. side of the river first before returning for her mother, Tania Vanessa Avalos. But Valeria apparently jumped in after him, and when he tried to rescue her, both were swept away by the current.

 (Source: Julia Le Duc/AP)

The New York Times put the photo on its front page, one of many newspapers around the nation to do so.

President Donald Trump reacted to the photo Wednesday on his way to the G-20 summit in Japan, blaming Democrats. "If they fix the laws, you wouldn't have that," Trump said. "It can be a very rough river.. very dangerous. They should change it so that people won't come up, so they won't get killed."

"Open borders mean people drowning in rivers," he continued. "That father, who probably was this wonderful guy with his daughter -- things like that wouldn't happen."

The top Senate Democrat, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, spoke on the Senate floor Wednesday morning next to a poster-sized version of the photo.

"President Trump, I want you to look at this photo. These are not drug dealers or vagrants or criminals. They are people simply fleeing a horrible situation in their home country for a better life," he said. "So, President Trump, if you want to know the real reason there's chaos at the border, look in the mirror,” Schumer said.

"We all—Democrats, Republicans, Americans—have a responsibility to act here," Schumer said, as the Senate was expected to vote on Wednesday on emergency border funding, including money at detention centers where reports say children have been mistreated.

Across the Capitol, a similar sentiment came from the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, at a hearing on what to do about the immigration crisis.

"I realize tragedies occur in this country—all over the world. I don't want to see another picture like that on the U.S. border,” said Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. “I hope that picture alone with catalyze this Congress, this Senate, this committee to do something.”

The photos also show the child's mother pointing out to Mexican authorities where she said her husband and daughter were swept away by the current hundreds of yards from where they had tried to cross.

(Source: Julia Le Duc/APTania)

The image of the dead father and daughter, and other photos, were captured by journalist Julia Le Duc, who told the Associated Press that the details of the incident were based on the mother’s account to authorities on the scene. The Associated Press confirmed the details with Martinez’s mother in El Salvador and with a Mexican government official.

(Source: Julia Le Duc/AP)
Tania Vanessa Avalos of El Salvador speaks with Mexican authorities, June 23, 2019, after her husband and nearly two-year-old daughter were swept away by the current in Matamoros, Mexico, while trying to cross the Rio Grande to Brownsville, Texas.

The photograph has drawn swift and impassioned attention around the world to the desperate conditions that migrants can face both in their home countries and during their efforts to reach the U.S.

“The deaths of Oscar and Valeria represent a failure to address the violence and desperation pushing people to take journeys of danger for the prospect of a life in safety and dignity,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi said in a statement on Wednesday. “This is compounded by the absence of safe pathways for people to seek protection, leaving people with no other choice than to risk their lives.”

In a tweet, Mexico's former ambassador the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan, said, “This tragedy is what happens when you try to enforce your way out of a #migration crisis. And in the end, the only winners will be the human smugglers and traffickers.”

ABC News' Luke Barr contributed to this report.