The Stories They Tell

These are the iconic photographs we remember:

The girl running down a Vietnamese road, her back scarred by napalm, telling a story that shocked a nation:

The firefighter carrying an infant to safety from the wreckage of the federal office building in Oklahoma City, telling the story of heroism amid the worst domestic terrorist attack in American history:

Firefighters staring at the wreckage of the World Trade Center, telling the story of the worst terrorist attack on American soil:

The little Syrian boy, his body washed up on a Turkish beach, telling the story of the atrocities his government committed upon its citizens and the indifference of the world:

Not all the iconic photographs tell a story of horror and tragedy. Some, convey joy, such as the sailor kissing a woman, a stranger, in New York City’s Times Square on V-J Day, telling the story of a nation happy World War II is over:

Now, this, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria, face down in the reeds on the banks of the Rio Grande River, telling the story of a nation under a president willing to deny refugees the right to seek asylum:

Martínez, his wife, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, and Valeria, not even two years old, traveled more than a thousand miles from their home in El Salvador in search of a brighter future. The promise of America lured them to make the arduous journey, a promise that attracted millions of immigrants before them. The family made it to the international bridge at Matamoros, Mexico, only to be told the bridge was closed and to return the next day. The young family reportedly was desperate. Standing on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, America — and its promise — seemed so close. Martínez and little Valeria, described as an ebullient child who loved to dance and play with her stuffed animals, waded in, trying to swim to Brownsville, Texas. The river waters were too swift, pulling the 25-year-old father and his daughter under, their bodies surfacing in the muddy brown river water.

The world learned of their fate from a photograph taken by journalist Julie Le Duc, published in the newspaper La Jornada. Empathetic human beings reacted with horror and shock, asking, how could this happen? And, how can we prevent similar tragedies? But, not President Donald Trump. After an obligatory “things like this shouldn’t happen,” Trump did what he always does: Blame someone else. This time he named Democrats, who he accused, falsely, of wanting open borders, saying “open borders mean people drowning in the rivers.” The narcissistic president, who lacks the gene for compassion, cannot accept responsibility for the consequences of his actions.

Everyone knows better and understands that the policies of the Trump administration run counter to the internationally recognized right of individuals to seek asylum. People fleeing persecution have been granted protection for centuries, but modern refugee law stems from the displaced persons crisis created by World War II. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the right to request asylum in other countries. The legal code of the United States allows refugees to ask for asylum once they land on American soil or to apply from outside the United States. The process whereby an individual is granted asylum is onerous, requiring him or her to prove they fled persecution. But, the procedures are clear and the right to seek asylum is protected.

Until now, that is. “Asylum, you know I look at some of these asylum people,” Trump says, “they’re gang members. They’re not afraid of anything… and they say, ‘I fear for my life,’ they’re the ones causing fear for life. It’s a scam, it’s a hoax.” According to Trump’s demagoguery, asylum seeking is just a fancy term for “illegal immigration.” The president’s policies are forcing migrants to remain in Mexico while they await hearings in the United States on their applications for asylum. American asylum officers, who implement American refugee policy, say the administration’s actions endanger the lives of migrants and is “fundamentally contrary to the moral fabric of our nation.”

The officers are right, the president wrong. Denying refugees the right to seek asylum, a right recognized in international and American law, is not who we are. Nor is forcibly separating families and locking children in cages while denying them toothbrushes, soap, and medical care. But, that is the new normal in an America led by a president who lacks a moral center. As long as Trump is president, more fathers and their daughters will die in the reeds.

Posted June 28, 2019

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