You may have seen it by now, if you could bear to look: a photo of a father and daughter, facedown in the Rio Grande, drowned as they tried to cross into America. And now we have another debate: Should news organizations publish this terrible picture? Will it change our minds? Will it matter in the end?
This is who they were, according to The Washington Post:
“Valeria was a cheery child. Not even 2 years old, she loved to dance, play with her stuffed animals and brush her family members’ hair. Her father, Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez, was stalwart. Nearly always working, he sold his motorcycle and borrowed money to move his family from El Salvador to the United States. Martinez and his wife, Tania Vanessa Avalos, wanted to save up for a home there. They wanted safety, opportunity.
” ‘They wanted a better future for their girl,’ Maria Estela Avalos, Vanessa’s mother, said in an interview.
“They traveled more than 1,000 miles seeking it. Once in the United States, they planned to ask for asylum, for refuge from the violence that drives many Central American migrants from their home countries every day. But the farthest the family got was an international bridge in Matamoros, Mexico. On Sunday, they were told the bridge was closed and that they should try to cross it the next day.
“But they were desperate. Standing on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, America looked within reach. The family waded in. Before they made it to the other side, to Brownsville, Texas, the river waters pulled Martinez and Valeria under and swept them away.”
We’ve been here before. In 2015, a Syrian boy named Aylan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey, drowned fleeing his country’s civil war. The world was aghast, saddened, horrified. Yet the war went on - hundreds of thousands dead, millions displaced, and Bashar Assad still rules.
You’ll remember the other photos in this genre of childhood misery and despair. The child seemingly stalked by a vulture amid the famine in Sudan in 1993; the photojournalist won a Pulitzer Prize for the shot, then killed himself. The boy who lost his arms and much of his family to an American bomb in Iraq in 2003, being treated for his awful wounds (he lived). The bloodied child cradled in the arms of a firefighter after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 (she did not). The young girl running naked down a street in Vietnam in 1972 after napalm was dropped on her village.
Every time, we ask whether it’s just too much to look at. And we remember them because images burn themselves in our brains in ways words often fail to, which is precisely why journalists are often reluctant to show us pictures of the dead or dying, even when it’s our own government’s decisions that led to their deaths.
Yet I’m reminded by University of Pennsylvania scholar Jessica Fishman, author of “Death Makes the News: How the Media Censor and Display the Dead,” that American media almost never show images of American children who have died.
Almost “all images of dead children picture a foreign victim, just as the one published today does,” she told me via email. “America’s dead children remain invisible because doing otherwise strikes us as profoundly unethical and even nonsensical.” Some things are just too upsetting.
And that’s the irony. We are allowed to see a photo of Valeria lying in her father’s arms in the Rio Grande precisely because they were not American, and therefore there’s just enough distance for the agony not to overwhelm us. But we are shown the photo so we will appreciate the tragedy, so we will feel it in a way we could not be made to feel with mere words.
The policy questions around our immigration system, how it works and how it ought to work, are complicated. But at the most basic level, we have to decide who the people coming to our border are.
President Donald Trump tells us they are a threat: rapists, drug dealers, murderers, here to “infest our country” like insects or vermin. His supporters agree or at a minimum say our regard should be as limited as possible. “Like it or not, these aren’t our kids,” said one of the co-hosts of Trump’s favorite show, “Fox & Friends,” last year about children being held in cages. “Show them compassion, but it’s not like he’s doing this to the people of Idaho or Texas. These are people from another country.”
A photo might tell us another story, one that says that though they were from a different country, Valeria and Oscar died trying to become American.
This is the story I have told my own children when I explain what is happening at our southern border. I have reminded them of how their great-great-grandmother made her way across Europe, her daughter in tow, her no-good husband left behind, to reach a boat that would take them to America. She too was fleeing violence and oppression. She too did not know exactly what she’d find on the other side. And she too believed it was her only hope.
Those people at the border in Texas holding their children, I said to them, they are exactly the same as your great-great-grandmother, the woman who made that journey and gave you this life. Exactly the same.
So now we must decide what to do about our immigration system in the short and long term: how to deal with the current influx of migrants, how we need to alter the rules around asylum, and what that system should look like in the coming years. But one thing we ought to agree on is that these are human beings and should be treated as such.
And we shouldn’t need to see a father and his daughter lying dead in a river to tell us that.
Paul Waldman is a columnist with The Washington Post.