The president of El Salvador addressed the viral photo of a migrant father and his young daughter who drowned trying to seek asylum in the United States on Sunday, casting blame on his own country for pushing Salvadorans to seek a safer place to live.
“People don’t flee their homes because they want to,” Nayib Bukele, the Salvadoran president, said during a news conference this weekend. “They flee their homes because they feel they have to.”
Bukele’s comments came after a photographer shared an image of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, who drowned while trying to cross the Rio Grande into Texas. In the image, Ramírez can be seen face down with Valeria tucked inside his shirt, his arm around her body, presumably to protect her during the dangerous passage.
The photo has quickly been cast as an emblematic image of President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies to rein in migration across the southern border with Mexico. The White House has forced many asylum seekers to wait in Mexico as part of a new policy to discourage people from seeking refuge in the U.S., but critics say it’s “not safe” for those who are already vulnerable. The Mexican government said earlier this month more than 15,000 people have been sent back to the country as part of Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy.
Bukele, who took office a month ago, has pledged to make El Salvador a safer place for its citizens during his tenure. Tens of thousands of people from around Central America have traveled toward the U.S., fleeing violence and poverty with the hope of finding a better life in America, and Bukele told the BBC that he understood why people like Ramírez would undertake the perilous journey north.
“They fled El Salvador, they fled our country,” the president said. “It is our fault. … Why? Because they don’t have a job, because they are being threatened by gangs, because they don’t have basic things like water, education, health.”
He went on to note that he believed migration should be an option for those dissatisfied with their lives but “not an obligation.”
“We can blame any other country, but what about our blame? What country did they flee? Did they flee the United States?” Bukele asked. “They fled El Salvador.”
The bodies of Ramírez and his daughter were returned to El Salvador earlier this week, and they were buried during a small private ceremony.