The desperate story of the migrant father and daughter whose Rio Grande drowning has shocked America

  • Video report by ITV News Washington Correspondent Robert Moore

  • Warning: This article contains an image that some may find distressing

The mother whose husband and 23-month-old daughter drowned trying to cross a river to the States is returning home to El Salvador with their bodies.

Tania Avalos has identified the bodies of 25-year-old Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and Valeria, whose bodies have been released to a funeral home and are expected to return home on Thursday.

In a picture that shocked the world, Valeria was clinging onto his dad's neck and tucked into his shirt, both lying face down on the edge of the Rio Grande.

"It was a dream they shared together to get ahead, the three of them, as a family and she returns in mourning alone with only the bodies of her family," Tamaulipas immigration official Enrique Maciel said.

Tania Avalos has identified the bodies. Credit: AP

After two months in a shelter in southern Mexico, Oscar brought his wife and young daughter to Matamoros – with only the width of the Rio Grande river separating them from a new life in Texas.

They arrived in the north-eastern city early on Sunday – 2,250km (1,400 miles) from their home in El Salvador – hoping to set a date to request asylum in America at the US Consulate.

The 25-year-old's name would join between 800-1,700 others on the waiting list, along with wife Tania, 21, and Valeria.

It’s not clear what happened at the US Consulate, where it’s believed no more than 45 asylum seekers are interviewed per week, but later in the day they made the decision to cross the river.

The bodies are expected to return to El Salvador on Thursday. Credit: AP

An official for the state of Tamaulipas, in Mexico, said the father and daughter set off from a small park that abuts the river and Oscar managed to set Valeria down on the American side of the river.

But seeing her dad making his way back to Tania, Valeria jumped back into the river and, although Oscar grabbed hold of his daughter, the current swept the pair away.

The bodies of Oscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter Valeria lie on the bank of the Rio Grande in Mexico. Credit: AP

Civil defence officials arrived at the scene at 7pm on Sunday and later took Tania to the shelter but the search was suspended as nightfall set in.

They were found the next day across from Brownsville, Texas, several hundred yards meters from where they had tried to cross and just one kilometre from an international bridge.

Mexican journalist Julia Le Duc, who found the bodies, took the picture that has now been seen around the world.

Oscar’s mother, Rosa Ramirez, had “begged” her son not to leave El Salvador but he was set on raising money to build their house.

“I begged them not to go, but he wanted to scrape together money to build a home,” Ramirez said.

“They hoped to be there a few years and save up for the house.

"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.

“He put her in his shirt, and I imagine he told himself, 'I've come this far' and decided to go with her.”

Rosa Ramirez holding her granddaughter's toys. Credit: AP

She said the last message she had received from her son was on Saturday.

"He said 'Mama, I love you'. He said 'take care of yourselves because we are fine here.' When I read that message, I don't know, it made me want to cry because I saw it as a sort of good-bye."

Oscar’s mother had spoken with her daughter-in-law by phone afterwards.

Tania, who was at a border migrant shelter following the drownings, reportedly told her account to police at the scene through “screams” and “tears”.

Rosa Ramirez holds pictures of her son and his family. Credit: AP

El Salvador's foreign ministry said it was working to assist the family. The bodies are expected to be flown to El Salvador on Thursday.

From the scorching Sonoran Desert to the fast-moving Rio Grande, the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border has long been a deadly crossing between ports of entry.

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 six-year-old from India was found dead earlier this month in Arizona, where temperatures routinely soar well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tamaulipas immigration and civil defence officials have toured shelters beginning weeks ago to warn against attempting to cross the river, said to be swollen with water released from dams for irrigation. On the surface, the Rio Grande appears placid, but strong currents run beneath.

Ramirez said her son and his family left El Salvador on April 3 and spent about two months at a shelter in Tapachula, near Mexico's border with Guatemala.

Yellow warning tape marks the area on the Rio Grande in Mexico where the bodies were found. Credit: AP

“Very regrettable that this would happen,” Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on 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.

US ‘metering’ policy has dramatically reduced the number of migrants who are allowed to request asylum, down from dozens per day previously to sometimes just a handful at some ports of entry.

The United States has also been expanding its program under which asylum seekers wait in Mexico while their claims are processed in US courts, a wait that could last many months or even years.

Many migrant shelters are overflowing on the Mexican side,and cartels hold sway over much of Tamaulipas and have been known to kidnap and kill migrants.