When he left his home in El Salvador with his wife and young daughter, Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez thought he was escaping a daily hell on earth. Asylum in the United States was their only hope of escaping the shadow of gang violence, drugs, official corruption and hopelessness. Or so they thought. The family got as far as a spot between Brownsville and Matamoros. Government officials told the family it would have to wait. But Martinez Ramirez couldn’t wait.
With his 23-month-old daughter, Angie Valeria, he tried swimming across the Rio Grande. He may have judged his swimming skills better and thought he could beat the strong current. Whatever the case, they never made it. But the image of a drowned father and baby daughter, her arm draped across his shoulders, went viral. They’re now the symbol of the desperation of thousands of Central Triangle immigrants looking for a new life.
“It’s economic deprivation,” said Dr. Arthur Campa, retired Associate Dean of College and Letters at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Daily life in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala---the Central Triangle---is making the choice for this flood of immigrants. The choice is stark, but one they’re willing to take even if for some it means losing their lives in the process.
What they’re hoping for is asylum, legal entry into the country and something resembling hope, said Campa. But the reality once here is slightly different. “We have a system for bringing them in but the system is just not working right. We have a policy on how to handle that, but it’s being stymied.” A bottleneck caused by a lack of immigration judges is just part of the problem.
Those lucky enough to receive asylum are immediately sent to camps, often times hastily constructed compounds or repurposed big box stores. Young children are routinely separated from relatives, including parents. Recent stories have shown these facilities to be overcrowded, unsanitary and with minimal oversight by workers. Children as young as eight and nine have become the caregivers for infants. And young children routinely sleep on the floor covered only with aluminum blankets.
In theory, the blankets are designed to provide warmth when it’s cold and keep heat out when it’s hot. These ‘solar blankets’ are long ago NASA technology. There are also rampant complaints that things as basic as soap and toothpaste are somehow not being made available to camp dwellers. Shower-to-immigrant ratios are often skewed in a negative tilt. Private donations are being turned away.
American media investigative units have shown the backlog along the border---stretching from California to Texas---grows by the day and is now approaching 100,000. But only a trickle, fewer than 50 each day, are lucky enough to gain entry. And there seems to be a cascade of pessimism that things are soon to change. “I understand the holdup turning in petitions for asylum are being reviewed slowly,” said Campa. “But the number of personnel who are supposed to be reviewing (petitions) is not up to par.”
In previous administrations, about 75,000 new immigrants were admitted each year. But that number has plunged to just 45,000 under this president. And while this trend seems to be working away from a solution, new hopefuls continue showing up each day. Last year, 93,000 men, women and children arrived hoping for asylum, a number nearly double from the previous year.
Desperation, as was symbolized in the drowning death of Martinez Ramirez and his little girl, often forces people choose low percentage odds to come to the U.S. In Tucson, the Pima County Medical Examiner now holds the remains of nearly 70 undocumented immigrants. “It’s comparable to last year,” said Dr. Gregory Hess. “We’ll average between 130-140 in a calendar year.”
Hess is responsible for storing the remains of the undocumented across a swath of southern Arizona that encompasses Cochise, Pima and Santa Cruz counties, more than 16,500 square miles. It is an area roughly two and a half times as large as Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. It is also an extraordinarily difficult trek no matter the season. Average summer temperatures in the Sonoran Desert are 107 but heat reaching as high as 130 has been recorded. Without water, death can occur in mid-summer heat in a matter of hours.
Hess said “about 86 percent (of the deaths) are male,” mostly people in their twenties and thirties. “The number one cause of death is undetermined,” he said from his Tucson office. Often, the remains are skeletal. “Some die from exposure, heat or hypothermia. Some die from injury, falls from cliffs,” and some, he said, are shot by border patrol.
Despite the challenges, migration from the Central Triangle as well as Mexico, is not expected to shrink, said Campa. Families too frightened to deal with some of the world’s highest homicide rates, drug and gang violence and human rights abuses, he said, will do almost anything to escape to a better life. Campa said the United States should consider sending aid to these counties, not unlike what the U.S. did in helping Europe rebuild following World War II. Currently there is no plan for that approach.