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  • Oscar Alberto Martinez, 25, and his 24-month-old daughter Angie Valeria died while trying to cross Rio Grande to reach the U.S.

    Oscar Alberto Martinez, 25, and his 24-month-old daughter Angie Valeria died while trying to cross Rio Grande to reach the U.S. | Photo: Handout by El Salvadorian authorities

Published 27 June 2019

Despite his mother’s pleas, Oscar Alberto Martinez and his wife Tania Vanessa Avalos, left El Salvador in April with their daughter, hoping to find work and a better life in the United States. 

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

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“I had a feeling,” said Rosa Ramirez, 46. “An ugly premonition.”

A harrowing photograph of Oscar Alberto Martinez, 25, and his 24-month-old daughter Angie Valeria lying face down on the muddy banks of the Rio Grande river between the United States and Mexico created an uproar this week.

U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called the image “horrific” and said the president’s migration clampdown made deaths more likely.

“Trump’s policy of making it harder and harder to seek asylum - and separating families who do - is cruel, inhumane and leads to tragedies like this,” he wrote on Twitter.

Despite his mother’s pleas, Oscar, his wife Tania Vanessa Avalos, 21 left El Salvador in April with their daughter, 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,” the grieving mother said. 

Oscar and Avalos both worked a minimum wage job. While Oscar was working at a pizzeria, Avalos worked as a cashier in a first food restaurant. The income was enough to buy their own place hence the decision to move to the United States.

Even though the family lived in the neighborhood of Altamira which is dominated by a street gang, their decision to leave for the U.S. was not influenced by violence. 

Oscar and Valeria were found drowned in each others’ arms just twelve weeks after leaving home. Exasperated by the wait to apply for asylum, Martinez and Angie Valeria attempted to swim to U.S. soil 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.

Ramirez said she feels “a huge emptiness.” Her friends have urged her to store her son and granddaughter’s belongings, but she is not ready for that yet.

She spoke to her son for the last time Saturday when he said that they were fine. The next morning, Oscar and his family arrived in Matamoros across the Texas border. They attempted to seek asylum at the port of entry but were turned away which led them to the decision of swimming across the river dividing Mexico and the North American country. 

Oscar crossed with his daughter Valeria first and then turned to help Avalos but she followed her father back into the water. They were swept away by the current when Oscar tried to save his daughter. 

They were found Monday near an international bridge. For Oscar’s mother, the now famous photo is equally painful and comforting. 

“It’s tough … that image. But at the same time, it fills me with tenderness. I feel so many things, because at no time did he let go of her.”

“You can see how he protected her,” she told the Associated Press. “They died in each other’s arms.”

After the death of Oscar and Valeria, Trump blamed the Democrats, whom he said were blocking his government’s attempts at closing “loopholes” in U.S. law that encourage migrants to apply for U.S. asylum.

“If they fixed the laws you wouldn’t have that. People are coming up, they’re running through the Rio Grande,” he said in a tweet void of empathy, referring to the river known as the Rio Bravo in Mexico that forms a large part of the border between the two countries.

“They can change it very easily so people don’t come up, and people won’t get killed,” Trump told reporters.

The U.N. refugee agency said the photo of Oscar and Angie Valeria from the U.S. border represents “a failure to address the violence and desperation pushing people to take journeys of danger.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said Martinez and his daughter had lost their lives because they could not get the protection they were entitled to under international law.

UNHCR compared the photograph to the picture of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi who drowned in the Mediterranean and whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey in 2015.

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

The route to the United States through Mexico is fraught with peril for the tens of thousands of Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorans who have crossed the U.S. border.

As well as confronting such difficulties, travelers are subjected to physical threats from corrupt officials and cartels that control people smuggling routes. Several other migrant deaths have been in the public eye in recent weeks.

Border Patrol reported 283 migrant fatalities on the border in 2018. Activists say the number is higher as the remains of many migrants who die in rugged stretches of wilderness along the 1,950-mile (3,138-km) long border is never found.

The U.S. Senate Wednesday approved a US$4.6 billion bill to address the migrant surge at the border with Mexico, setting up a negotiation with the House of Representatives and President Donald Trump over the funds and how they should be spent.

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