June 30, 2019

Oscar and Valeria: Horror at the Rio Grande.

by Harold Gershowitz

Comments Below

Oscar was twenty-five; his daughter, Valeria, two years old. They, along with Tania, Oscar’s wife (and Valeria’s mom), came to the Mexican-US border, at Matamoros just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville Texas. They were a desperate family fleeing the crime and violence that is endemic in their native El Salvador. Fear of crime and violence in one’s home country does not necessarily qualify for political asylum, but Oscar and Tania with their child Valeria in tow were going to try and plead their case to American immigration officials, which they were entitled to do.

So, seeking political asylum, when they finally reached Matamoros, they went immediately to the US Consulate where they were told to come back at a later date— apparently a much later date, as the consulate was metering asylum appointments. “Metering” is the Administration’s word for deliberately slow-walking asylum applications. It is a monstrous, sanitizing word to describe a monstrous process designed to discourage people from pursuing the very legal process the Administration demands they follow.

They are, as we all know by now, no longer a family, not a living family anyway, because Oscar and his daughter Valeria are both dead, having drowned in the raging waters of the Rio Grande as Tania watched in horror. Actually, Oscar and Valeria made it to the American side where they planned to turn themselves in to border personnel (as the law requires) as soon as Oscar could return with Tania. Oscar had placed Valeria on dry ground and told his daughter to wait while he went back for her mother, who was waiting on the shore just across the narrow river. But the child, Valeria, panicked and tried to follow him back. Oscar turned back to save his daughter and, moments later, they were both dead. Tania watched it all in horror.

This essay is really not about blame, although there is so much blame to go around. We have an utterly dysfunctional Congress consisting of two political parties that won’t work together to seriously address the problems of immigration, especially at our southern border. That’s been a long running failure of many Congresses. As soon as the gut-wrenching pictures appeared of the father and daughter lying face down among the reeds on the Mexican shore of the river, a chorus of politicians from two-bit congressmen to the President of the United States rushed to the microphone to finger point and yell “your fault” at their political rivals. It was stomach-turning pathetic.

The governments comprising the notoriously dangerous triangle of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, from where most of the immigrants are fleeing are inept…or worse, at dealing with the crime and corruption that are indigenous to the area.

The Trump Administration, meanwhile, is dealing with this humanitarian crisis by slow-walking the asylum process and countermanding US law that says an applicant for political asylum must, literally, present himself or herself anywhere on American soil and not necessarily at a legal point of entry. That is literally what the law says. US consulates are not supposed to be processing points for asylum seekers. In fact, under our law, US consulates in foreign countries are, technically, proscribed from acting as political asylum processing centers.

We don’t know if Oscar, and Tania and their little daughter, Valeria, would have been granted political asylum, nor do we know whether they would have returned to El Salvador if their applications had been rejected by our government. It is true, many asylum seekers do not show up for their asylum hearings, although not nearly as many as Administration officials say. 

The world knows about Oscar and Valeria and Tania because their pictures and tragic stories have been displayed all over the world. These graphic photographs are rare, but these stories are not.

A short time ago, a group of four—two babies, a toddler and a woman were found dead in the Arizona desert, overcome by sweltering heat. At about the same time, three kids and an adult from Honduras tried to navigate the Rio Grande on a raft. It is a treacherous and unforgiving river. They all perished. And earlier this month, a six-year-old child from India…from India of all places, was found dead, again, in the Arizona desert. 

People are born into this world and have, perhaps, a tiny chance of a decent life, let alone a good or prosperous life. A small fraction still looks to America as the promised land, but for most of them, the American dream is apt to be an American nightmare.

And as we talk about walls and tell the world “we’re full, sorry we can’t take any more,” thousands think if they don’t make the trek now they’ll never get another chance. So, our politicization of the issue, our threat to shut down or curtail immigration, actually generates greater numbers of desperate people who think it’s now or never and begin walking, or swimming or hitching rides or joining caravans wherever and whenever they can to head to America. Politicization of the issue adds to the masses heading our way.

Few nations are motivated to help, especially in this era of populism and nationalism. Politicians will often have hell to pay by even showing sympathy for those souls hoofing it to whatever perceived safe harbor they think they can reach.

This essay will attract commenters who will give reason after reason why we can’t take more refugees or immigrants. Their emotion is real. Their reasoning often isn’t. We, with our declining birthrate, aging population and industries for which Americans do not want to work, need sensible and robust immigration. Ironically, our own safety net programs actually benefit from both lawful and unlawful immigration. The majority of all undocumented workers pay handsomely into social security and Medicare, and none will ever draw benefits from those same programs.

It’s true. According to the Social Security Administration, about 340 million unclaimed social security tax forms have accumulated and are sitting in the social security trust fund (compared to 270 million a decade ago), most of which can be assumed to belong to undocumented immigrants. In fact, illegal immigration is considered largely responsible for the mushrooming of the Social Security suspension file which tracks money that has been paid in and for which there are no actual real names of payors—undocumented workers paying billions in taxes for retirement benefits they will likely never receive. These undocumented workers also pay state sales and excise taxes, and state income taxes and property taxes thereby contributing to a myriad of other services.  The contention that undocumented workers burden social services while contributing nothing is patently false.

It’s time for the Administration and the Congress to try something really novel. It’s time to work with other well-developed countries with well-developed economies to try to lighten, rather than exacerbate, a worldwide humanitarian crisis. Not because it’s an easy task, but, as John Kennedy said when he committed the United States to send a man to the moon and returning him safely to earth, because it’s hard.

It’s also necessary and vital. Millions of decent human beings depend on it.

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4 responses to “Oscar and Valeria: Horror at the Rio Grande.”

  1. Roberta Conner says:

    Your essay is, in fact, about blame. In your transparent attempt to shift blame for these unfortunate deaths onto our country and its policies you overlook two important facts. One, the father of this poor child is totally responsible for his bad decision to make such a treacherous river crossing with his young daughter. Two, this family could have applied for asylum in the first country they entered – namely Mexico but chose to take the much greater risk of reaching the US.

    According to media reports this family owned a two-bedroom house in their home country but sought to take advantage of the current crisis at the border created by the democrats persistent refusal to close the loopholes in our present asylum policies.

    The “sensible and robust” immigration you say the US requires cannot ever include illegal border crossings and migrations. We have the inherent and absolute right to control our borders and determine who we wish to allow in this country.

    • In Response to Ms. Conner: No one suggests that we don’t have an inherent right to protect our borders. But anyone who makes it to our shores, turns himself or herself over to border personnel and requests political asylum has not made an illegal crossing as Ms. Conner suggests. His or her action is entirely consistent with the legal process for claiming political asylum. Using Ms. Conner’s logic, the only people realistically entitled to claim political asylum in the United States are Mexicans and Canadians. Everyone else must claim political asylum in the first country they reach. Well, that’s not the way our political asylum laws work. We made it a point to acknowledge that this family may very well have had their political asylum application turned down. We were not arguing the case that this family merited political asylum. We were making the case that an unprecedented humanitarian crisis exists and that walls and slow-walking political asylum requests will do nothing to alleviate the crisis. Sensible and robust immigration policy cannot consist of demonization of immigrants, or of scraping our own political asylum procedures by executive fiat.

  2. Larry Fox says:

    Asylum is a terribly hard problem for several reasons:
    1) Most importantly, the great majority of us confuse asylum and refugee status. To be a refugee a person or the family must be under specific, demonstrated mortal risk because of their beliefs. To be granted asylum a person or family must be under specific, demonstrated, mortal risk should they be returned to their native country. Each of the words [specific, demonstrated, and mortal are to be taken narrowly and precisely. “Demonstrated” means proven.] We may not like these definitions, but they are our law. If we don’t like our laws, we should change them, but unless we do it’s not enough to show that an asylum seeker is from a terrible, awful, no good, and crazy-dangerous place.
    2) immigration judges are not real judges in most cases. They were barbers, and exterminators, and unsuccessful lawyers, so the data on how immigration judges have ruled on matters is not terribly useful. The flow of asylum seeks is very variable, while the number of judges is not. Our laws – not everyone’s provide that asylum seekers can remain here until their cases are adjudicated.
    3) the standard of proof in preliminary hearings is not tied to the standard of proof for being granted asylum. A showing of a specific, demonstrated, mortal risk is not required to be allowed to stay pending an immigration trial. It should be.

    How to fix this. 1) conform the rules of proof in a preliminary hearing to those of a trial. 2) upgrade the bar. 3) set a monthly maximum for asylum seekers that matches our processing capacity. 4) cooperate with neighbors so that asylum seekers in excess of our maximums do not easily pass through or from their countries.

    Though it affronts many, there are valid moral arguments – to me, compelling ones – arguing that we should limit the number of asylum seekers in our Country.

  3. Robert borns says:

    Argueing this long continuing problem situation using a morality story is a total waste. It is a political problem only. The politicians don’t have the will to solve this ugly ongoing horror. As trump says if both parties wanted the problem solved it could be done right now. This is an American political low point. By the way What is good for our country is off the table. Would the dems like a Warhawk president to strike North Korea, iran,Russia and others. Would they be happy to see billions spent and soldiers and civilians killed. Should Truman not have fired MacArthur and fought a war with China. Should we have attacked Russia when the Berlin Wall went up. Trump has the macro correct everywhere including the border-let’s forget politics and sit and solve including usmca and yes talk with our opponents.

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