Riley Manning

Riley Manning

Sometimes a picture says a thousand words, other times a photo can leave you speechless altogether.

Last week, a photo showing a drowned Salvadoran migrant and his daughter, face down near the bank of the Rio Grande caught national attention. The man, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, was just 25 years old, and his daughter, Valeria Ramírez, was almost 2.

The photo isn’t shot in an artistic or dramatic way – it feels pedestrian or casual. The facelessness of the pair perhaps encapsulates some pathos or metaphor of the crisis at the border.

Óscar brought his daughter and wife more than 2,000 miles in blistering heat from El Salvador to move to the United States. El Salvador is noted for its gang activity – like the infamous MS-13 – but Óscar’s wife said the family left to seek greater economic opportunity.

Their journey stalled at Matamoros, a Mexican town on the border just south of Brownsville, which sits at the bottom tip of Texas. Matamoros boasts two international bridges by which migrants can legally cross and request humanitarian protection from U.S. authorities. They planned to ask for asylum and seek refugee status. It would have been an easy process 10 years ago.

Asylum cases have skyrocketed in the past 10 years, from around 7,000 in 2010 to more than 325,000 in 2019. After an asylum application is filed, an asylum officer ideally schedules an interview within 45 days and makes a decision within six months, though it typically takes longer. In response, the USCIS now prioritizes new cases over old ones, which has stemmed the backup drastically, but hasn’t stopped it completely. The U.S. refugee ceiling was set at an historically low 30,000.

Usually, asylum-seekers are allowed to live in America while their case plays out, but not anymore. The Trump administration’s policy sends asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico. However, around half of migrants who come to the Mexican border each year aren’t Mexican citizens – they come from El Salvador, Venezuela, Honduras, Guatemala and elsewhere. To stay in Mexico, they file for visas, temporary visitor permits, and other statuses that buy them time. Still, nothing allows for a long-term wait at the border.

In Matamoros, around 1,500 migrants wait their turn to file for asylum. It’s a dangerous area, torn by splinter factions of two dissolved drug cartels.

Out of frustration and desperation, Óscar weighed his options and chose to chance the treacherous river. He swam his daughter across first. When he returned for his wife, his daughter waded into the water and was swept up. Óscar retrieved her, but it cost both their lives.

As a parent, the decisions and dangers faced by Óscar and his family leave me speechless. I can’t fathom the uncertainty or the scope of going so far to become part of another nation, one you’ve never even been to. But that’s what it means to be a city on a hill: a promise of hope.

Immigration, on a global level, is a complicated issue with too many moving parts to count, a logistical nightmare that connects the most powerful entities on Earth to the most desperate and vulnerable. It feels like Óscar and Valeria were chewed up in the wheels of something incapable of operating delicately. Achieving an immigration system that functions with both humanity and security seems impossible.

I hope the picture is not a last word. I pray the powers that be don’t turn their back on those who seek America’s promise.

RILEY MANNING is a fiction writer, former religion reporter for the Daily Journal, and a copywriter at Mabus Agency. He can be reached at

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