I saw the horrific photograph and felt the shame of a privileged person who never had to risk his life by fleeing his home to find refuge in the United States. That’s what Oscar Martinez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter Valeria were trying to do on Monday – they were swimming for their lives to reach Brownsville, Texas – when they drowned.
On Tuesday, the Associated Press circulated a photograph of their lifeless bodies floating face-down along the banks of the Rio Grande. It was like a slap in the face to our compassion-challenged nation that remains largely ignorant of a humanitarian crisis that is driving families like Martinez to flee El Salvador for the chance of a better life in an America desperate to keep them out.
In communities like Sacramento, we’re just bystanders to a humanitarian crisis. What were seeing now with massive caravans of displaced people from Central America is like having Syria on our doorstep.
But unlike European countries accepting larger numbers of people seeking asylum from Syria, our country – the so-called nation of immigrants – is responding to Central American diaspora by separating immigrant kids from their parents at the border and shipping the kids to camps far from anyone they know.
We’re responding by turning water cannons on women and children on the Mexican side of the border. And we’re responding by pushing asylum seekers back toward Mexico, where they wait in hopeless lines to press their cases. On the stage of the presidential debate stage Wednesday, candidate Julián Castro said the photograph “should ... piss us all off.” He added, “it should spur us to action.”
Martinez and his family apparently got tired of waiting. He swam across the Rio Grande with his baby girl. He placed her safely on the banks and headed back toward the other side for the rest of his family.Valeria became frightened and jumped back in the water. He tried to save her, the current pulled them under.
The image of father and daughter floating face down in death hit Marvin Pineda like a brick to his face. Pineda is well known in Sacramento political circles as a lobbyist. He is a graduate of UC Davis Law School. He runs his own firm and previously worked in the state Capitol. He’s a self-made man, a family man.
And he also once very well could have been a dead child from Central America who perished on the harrowing journey from his native Guatemala to California in 1991. At age 10, he was smuggled into the United States by a smuggler paid by his mother. It meant crossing the length of Mexico with strangers. It meant seeing things, hearing things and experiencing things that no child other should.
“I saw some really bad stuff,” said Pineda, 38. “I saw a man and a woman having sex right next to me. We were arrested and deported twice.” He saw children even more vulnerable than he and wonders what ever became of them.
“We pretty much walked through the mountains,” he said. “You’re a kid exposed to things no kid ever should be exposed to.”
Pineda was lucky. He made it to Los Angeles, where he grew up. By the late 1990s, he had a green card that guaranteed legal residency. He graduated from UC Riverside and Davis Law. He got into politics, settled in the Sacramento region and threw himself into his work.
But his journey, his experience, all came rushing back to him this week.
“When I saw that picture, it broke my heart,” said Pineda. “I think about my work and all I do and then I see that photograph and think, to hell with it.”
Pineda said he has spent his adult life being shy about discussing his past. When he saw the photograph of father and daughter in death, he said ashamed, just as I felt ashamed.
My children have what I had: The simple fate of being born in a nation of privilege. But it’s much harder to sell America as a safe haven of opportunity now, when the White House demonizes immigrants and too many of us remain quiet.
The photo of the Martinezes is simply the latest example of how our history of sheltering desperate people is under daily assault by our government that separates the children of asylum seekers from their families. The immigrants fleeing Central America are largely women and children. El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have among the highest homicide rate of women in the world, according to Amnesty International.
According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, many other nations in Europe and Asia accept more asylum seekers than the US. President Donald Trump is threatening to cut off foreign aid to Central American nations, which experts say will have the effect of forcing more immigrants to head north.
City council members in Sacramento have told me they get a lot of static for committing city money to helping undocumented immigrants get legal advice.
Pineda is pledging to use his talent to help asylum seekers with their cases. He’s raising his voice because of a powerfully disturbing photograph of a lifeless body of a child that could have been him.
Others in Sacramento have stories like Pineda and we need to hear those stories now before we completely forget the principles of compassion we used to associate with our country.