Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a frequent opinion contributor to CNN and The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Angie Valeria had not celebrated her second birthday when she drowned on Sunday, grasping her father as they tried to reach the United States. The picture of tiny Valeria, face down, with her arm still around her dead father’s neck, has become the heartbreaking symbol of the Trump administration’s cruel – and failing – policies at the southern border. Valeria and her father, Oscar Alberto Ramirez, are more than a statistic because we have their picture. But they are not an anomaly.
The same day they died, seven other migrants – including two babies and a toddler – were found dead in Texas, unable to survive the brutal summer heat that is just starting.
In his disastrous effort to appear tough to his base as he seeks to regulate immigration, President Donald Trump is not only causing immense human suffering, he is also hurting and weakening the United States.
In effect, the President is unilaterally disarming the United States, surrendering one of the most effective weapons in its arsenal, one of its greatest sources of strength: soft power. Trump’s poorly conceived efforts to reduce the number of people seeking asylum are steadily eroding America’s moral authority, its moral standing.
What scholars call soft power, the ability to influence and persuade other countries to act as you will without the need to use force, echoes one of President Ronald Reagan’s favorite images, the shining city upon a hill. Reagan inspired with the notion of leading a nation that earned and attracted admiration and emulation; one where people of different backgrounds could live in harmony pursuing shared ideals.
Trump and many of his backers have little time for such sentimentality. He was elected on a nativist platform that sought to keep out people from certain backgrounds: Muslims and “Mexicans,” a term that might have included Central Americans, who now make up a majority of the people coming across the Mexico border. Trump complained that so many try to come from “shithole countries,” instead of from (whiter?) places like Norway.
But mass migrations don’t emerge from peaceful, prosperous countries. Extreme violence and poverty are driving hundreds of thousands to leave Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where Valeria and her father came from.
The Trump strategy to keep people away relies on cruelty as a deterrent. The idea, presumably, is that when people hear how horrific conditions are for those trying to come in, they will stay away. Instead, desperate people are taking greater risks.
The reporter Julia Le Duc, who took the tragic photograph of Valeria and Oscar, wrote in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada that the family – father, daughter, and Tania, Valeria’s now-widowed mom – made their way from El Salvador to apply for US asylum. Under international law, they have a legal right to do so. But the Trump administration has instituted a “metering” system, blocking people from applying and keeping them warehoused in Mexico under an agreement with that country. The family had reportedly spent two months in a dismal, overcrowded Mexican shelter, enduring hunger and 110-degree temperatures. The shelter held hundreds of people, Le Duc said, and US authorities were granting just three asylum interviews per week. They faced potentially years of waiting. They decided to cross the Rio Grande and request asylum from US soil.
Oscar Alberto carried Valeria to the other side, and returned to bring Tania across. But Valeria jumped in the water behind him. He quickly returned, tucked her in his T-shirt. Tania saw them submerged by the currents. She frantically sought help. When their bodies were found, Valeria was still tucked inside her father’s black T-shirt.
The deaths are the predictable result of a policy unfolding on both sides of the border, one of cruelty, mistreatment, and disregard for the suffering of human beings – people that President Donald Trump has sought to dehumanize for years, describing them as “criminals,” “rapists,” and “animals” who “infest our country.”
The United States is not the first country to struggle with large numbers of asylum seekers, but Trump’s policies have proven disastrous in every respect. They also edge perilously close to illegality.
International and US law compels authorities to give a fair hearing to asylum seekers. It is not against the law to request asylum when your life is in danger.
But even those who make it across the border fall into this administration’s morass of cruelty. Authorities have taken thousands of children from their parents. And even after a judge ordered separations to stop, the Trump administration exploited a legal loophole and removed hundreds more children from their parents, according to court documents.
Trump repeatedly lies, claiming Obama was the one who separated families and he who stopped the policy. The fact is that Obama and Bush separated families in extremely rare cases, when there were doubts about whether a child belonged to the adult, or suspicions of serious crimes. It was the Trump administration that made family separation US policy.
Now we’re learning about sickening conditions in shelters where separated children are warehoused; conditions that one doctor described as “mental and emotional abuse,” in places that could be “compared to torture facilities.”
Babies have ended in intensive care units as the result of negligence and worse. Health professionals and human rights lawyers have described sick, hungry, traumatized toddlers in US custody.
For those of us who cover human rights, it is jarring to have to focus on the United States, a country that, despite its flaws and inconsistencies, has long rallied the world, championing human rights.
Making matters worse, Trump’s absurdly expensive policy doesn’t work. Doesn’t work, that is, if its objective is to reduce the number of migrants. It is successful, however, if its purpose is to show to Trump’s most fervent backers, to his base, that he is tough. A more effective policy would bolster and accelerate processing, improve conditions for asylum seekers, and tackle the reasons people leave their countries. But Trump has done the opposite, defunding anti-violence, anti-poverty programs. Those programs wouldn’t look good for a macho president.
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Trump’s border policies are destroying lives, as the haunting photo shows, but they are also causing grievous harm to America. Even after he leaves office, it will take decades to repair the country’s devastated image.