Photograph of Dead Migrant Family Spurs Right Outrage, Wrong Solutions

By Matthew Sussis on June 27, 2019

At last night's Democratic debate, multiple candidates rightly expressed outrage over a disturbing photograph of a Salvadoran father and his child who died attempting to cross the Rio Grande into the United States. The anger is absolutely justified, but unfortunately the candidates had the wrong solutions. What they proposed — from decriminalizing illegal entry into the United States to weakening interior enforcement — would only exacerbate the crisis, and lead to even more deaths like the one photographed. There are several important points to remember with regard to migrants dying:

  • Migrants dying en route to the US, especially children, is unfortunately nothing new. Last week, a six-year-old girl from India died of a heat stroke in the Arizona desert. Last year, as we wrote about at the time, two children between the ages of seven and eight died after crossing into the country illegally. Overall, more than 280 migrants died last year trying to cross the southern border. We've covered these gruesome deaths during past surges as well, such as here and here. Beyond deaths, the journey to the U.S. often results in rape and abuse at the hands of human smugglers. According to Doctors Without Borders, one-thirds of the women are sexually assaulted along the way and two-thirds of all the migrants become victims of violence along the way.
  • Our own immigration and asylum laws are encouraging families and children to make this incredibly dangerous journey, because they know that children will be allowed in. In 2016, the 9th Circuit interpreted the Flores settlement to mean that all children must be released from detention within 20 days. That has created an incredibly powerful incentive for parents to smuggle children, because those children become "passports" that nearly guarantee the release of entire families into the United States if they simply claim to have a credible fear of returning to their home country. Until those loopholes are closed, more children will be carried along on the dangerous trip through Central America and Mexico.
  • Despite the perilous conditions of the journey, many of these migrants — including the father and his daughter pictured—are coming not because they are fleeing violence, but due to economic conditions. Rosa Ramirez, the mother of Salvadoran man in the photograph, said that her son and granddaughter were crossing to the United States in hopes of earning enough money to buy "a place of their own" rather than live in a multi-generational house back in El Salvador. In fact, a poll from the Guatemalan government found that 91 percent of migrants coming to the U.S. were migrating for economic reasons, and murder rates in Central America have actually fallen in recent years. While money is certainly an understandable reason for wanting to migrate, it is not grounds for asylum.
  • Border Patrol agents have rescued over 2,500 migrants this fiscal year through May. As border crossings continue to surge, Border Patrol will have to devote more and more resources to migrant rescues, but unfortunately will not be able to save them all.
  • The cartels are mostly indifferent to migrant deaths, and are getting rich off the surge. Mexican drug cartels get paid approximately $1,000 per head for each person whom they allow to cross through northern Mexico. Whether that migrant goes on to live or die does not affect their profits, and cartels have little regard for human life. Last month, 144,000 migrants crossing translated to at least $144 million for northern Mexico cartels, not to mention the hundreds of millions of additional dollars being paid to coyotes for transportation and to corrupt officials for bribes.

This illegal border surge benefits no one. It enriches the cartels, degrades American sovereignty, and puts the migrants themselves at serious physical risk, often resulting in deaths. Photographs of dead children and their parents are heartbreaking — and they should spur legislators to action. It's high time to fix the asylum loopholes in our own laws that are incentivizing this journey and driving this unsustainable migration surge.