Editor's note: This story includes disturbing photos and graphic details.
A harrowing photo of a migrant father and his 23-month-old daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande river in Mexico has renewed outrage over the immigration debate — and sparked debate over the graphic nature of the photo itself.
The image, taken by journalist Julia Le Duc and showing Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria deceased and face down on a muddy riverbank, has sparked visceral responses on social media.
The Associated Press released the photo for use by all of its member press organizations on Tuesday, and over 650 people tweeted responses within hours of publication.
Some people were furious over the graphic nature of the photo. Others were incensed over U.S. immigration policy that they say is allowing the tragedy to coldly unfold. Others expressed anger that the public is not doing enough to help families who are fleeing violence and poverty.
Absolutely disgusted that AP is running the image of two dead bodies on the shores of the Rio Grande -- including that of a baby girl. U.S. media never do this with white bodies. But sometimes darker bodies are fair game. It's gruesome and wholly unnecessary.— Aura Bogado (@aurabogado) June 25, 2019
The bodies were discovered on Monday. The father's black shirt is seen hiked up to his chest with the girl’s head tucked inside. Her arm was draped around his neck, suggesting she clung to him in her final moments.
According to Le Duc’s reporting for the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, Ramírez, frustrated because the family from El Salvador was unable to present themselves to U.S. authorities and request asylum, swam across the river on Sunday with his daughter.
He set her on the U.S. bank of the river and started back for his wife, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, but seeing him move away the girl threw herself into the waters. Martínez returned and was able to grab Valeria, but the current swept them away.
USA TODAY has not been able to independently confirm the account. Le Duc told the AP that the account was based on remarks by Ávalos to police at the scene.
Details of the incident were confirmed Tuesday by a Tamaulipas government official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, and by Martínez’s mother in El Salvador, Rosa Ramírez, who spoke with her daughter-in-law by phone afterward.
“When the girl jumped in is when he tried to reach her, but when he tried to grab the girl, he went in further ... and he couldn’t get out,” Ramírez told the AP. “He put her in his shirt, and I imagine he told himself, ‘I’ve come this far’ and decided to go with her.”
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A total of 283 migrant deaths were recorded last year; the toll so far this year has not been released.
In recent weeks alone, two babies, a toddler and a woman were found dead on Sunday, overcome by the sweltering heat; elsewhere three children and an adult from Honduras died in April after their raft capsized on the Rio Grande; and a 6-year-old from India was found dead earlier this month in Arizona, where temperatures routinely soar well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Very regrettable that this would happen,” Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Tuesday in response to a question about the photograph. “We have always denounced that as there is more rejection in the United States, there are people who lose their lives in the desert or crossing” the river.
There was no immediate comment from the White House.
the photo of the drowned migrant father and toddler broke me— crazy for (don) swayze (@maggieserota) June 25, 2019
The photo comes amid increasing tension over the immigration debate. Also Tuesday, the acting head of the Customs and Border Protection agency, John Sanders, resigned amid reports of migrant children at the border being held in unsafe and filthy conditions.
The resignation coincides with calls for immigration reform amid the treatment of detained migrant kids after lawyers reported some of the older children were caring for toddlers at a facility in Clint, Texas, and that they lacked adequate food, water and sanitation.
Contributing: Mabinty Quarshie, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Graphic photo of drowned father and daughter stirs volatile immigration debate