Another Heartbreaking Photograph Grabs the Public’s Attention, but Will It Cause Us to Solve the Crisis at the Border?


By Andrew Quist

A heartbreaking photograph of the bodies of a deceased man and his 23-month-old daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande River went viral this week. The man, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, was attempting to enter the United States with his family to claim asylum. They tried to enter the country legally at a port of entry, but were told that the border was closed over the weekend and even if they waited, there were hundreds of people ahead of his family in line and U.S. border officials were only admitting a few people per day to hear asylum claims. So Ramírez and his family decided to take their chances crossing the Rio Grande, with tragic consequences.

The U.S. asylum processing system is broken. Thousands of asylum seekers are being turned away at the border, in violation of U.S. law. Children who arrive unaccompanied or who were ripped away from their families during the period of time when the Trump administration was operating its “zero tolerance” policy are now being housed in cages, forced to sleep on concrete with the lights on, and are deprived of food and bathing.

Will the picture of Ramírez and his daughter lead to real change to address this humanitarian crisis? Perhaps. The photo has impacted politicians of both parties. Democrat Representative Joaquin Castro said, “It’s very hard to see that photograph. It’s our version of the Syrian photograph—of the 3-year-old boy on the beach, dead. That’s what it is.” And during a hearing Republican Senator Ron Johnson, visibly emotional, said, “I don’t want to see another picture like that on the U.S. border. I hope that picture alone will catalyze this Congress, this Senate, this committee to do something.”

However, if history is a guide, the impact of the photograph will be short lived. The image is being compared to another photograph of a drowned child—that of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old from Syria who died in the Mediterranean Sea. Reporters from the New York Times observed, “Like the iconic photo of a bleeding Syrian child pulled from the rubble in Aleppo after an airstrike or the 1993 shot of a starving toddler and a nearby vulture in Sudan, the image of a single father and his young child washed up on the Rio Grande’s shore had the potential to prick the public conscience.”

The image of Aylan Kurdi did have an impact, but only temporarily. Donations to aid groups like the Red Cross increased for a month, and then fell back down to levels before the photo of Aylan was published. At first, politicians from countries such as England and Germany spoke of the need to accommodate the refugees fleeing violence in Syria. But a backlash has also occurred, with voters in Europe electing right-wing politicians who promise to keep out refugees, like Italy’s Matteo Salvini.

Why does it take a single photograph to draw attention to a crisis that has been ongoing for years? The humanitarian crisis at the southern border began in 2014, and last year alone, 294 people died crossing the Rio Grande, according to statistics published by the U.S. Border Patrol. The answer is psychic numbing. Due to this psychological phenomenon, we don’t emotionally appreciate the suffering of large numbers of people, but our emotions are aroused by a shocking image of one person. Photographer Julia Le Duc, who took the photograph of Ramírez and his daughter, has seen many dead bodies from people trying to cross the Rio Grande, but even she was moved by the sight of the father and daughter lying face down in the river. She wrote in the Guardian, “You get numb to it, but when you see something like this it re-sensitizes you.”

Because the impact of shocking images is short lived, it is important for people to take action while their attention is focused on the problem. One tangible action people can take to help solve the humanitarian crisis at the border is to donate to legal aid organizations like Immigrant Families Together, which is helping reunite the families of asylum-seekers. We should also lobby our elected representatives. Congress passed a bill that provides $4.6 billion in humanitarian assistance at the border, but pressure on Congress and the Trump Administration is needed to ensure that conditions on the border improve, and asylum claims are processed. The time to act is now, before our attention wanes.

Photograph by Julia Le Duc/Associated Press. Republished under fair use—newsworthiness.