The harrowing image of Salvadoran migrant Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, who drowned in the Rio Grande after reportedly being unable to request asylum, has returned attention to the U.S. government's controversial policy of forcing migrants to wait in Mexico before allowing them to cross the border to claim asylum.
Known as “metering,” the policy is meant to address a record surge of migrants, mainly families from Central America, making the trek through Mexico to the U.S.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have been stopping migrants at international bridges and other ports of entry before they enter U.S. territory and telling them they must wait in Mexico for their turn to make an asylum claim. The practice has led to long wait times and overcrowded conditions on the Mexican side of the border, and critics say the policy pushes many asylum seekers to illegally cross the border between ports of entry.
The Tribune's reporting for this project is supported by the Pulitzer Center.
The long wait led to Ramírez’s decision to attempt to swim across the river with his daughter Angie Valeria on Sunday, according to photographer Julia Le Duc, who first reported the story in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada. Their bodies were later found at the riverbank near Matamoros, Mexico, across from Brownsville, several hundred yards from where they had tried to cross.
Ramirez's wife, Tania Vanessa Avalos, said the family had spent two months in a migrant camp waiting to apply for asylum. NPR reported that she watched from the shore as her husband and daughter were swept away by the strong river currents.
Earlier this month, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan said that of the 900,000 backlogged cases in U.S. immigration courts, 350,000 are asylum cases.
In 2017, the American Immigration Council filed a lawsuit challenging the metering policy, arguing that it denies migrants their constitutional right to access the asylum process. Members of Congress, organizations representing asylum seekers and some state attorneys general have filed briefs in support of the lawsuit, which is still pending in a California federal district court.
The metering policy differs from the Department of Homeland Security's Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program, which requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their immigration hearings after they’ve already crossed the border and been processed by Customs and Border Protection.
In March, then-U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defended the practice while testifying before the House Homeland Security Committee.
“All asylum seekers have the opportunity to present their case; we’re not turning anybody around. What we are doing is exercising statutory authority that enables us to, in conjunction with Mexico, to return to Mexico migrants who have arrived from that country to await their processing. This is to assure a safe and orderly flow and to ensure that their humanitarian rights are protected.”