Acting director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli blamed the father in the now-infamous photograph of a drowned man and his daughter at the southern border for both of their deaths.
When asked by CNN’s Erin Burnett on Thursday whether he was concerned that the photo would become emblematic of the administration’s immigration policy, Cuccinelli replied, “no in fact, just the opposite.”
“The reason we have tragedies like that on the border is because those folks, that father didn’t want to wait to go through the asylum process in the legal fashion, so decided to cross the river,” Cuccinelli said of father Oscar Alberto Martínez and his daughter, 23-month-old Angie Valeria, whose bodies were found in the Rio Grande.
“And not only died, but his daughter died tragically as well,” he added on “Erin Burnett OutFront.” “Until we fix the attractions in our asylum system, people like that father and that child are going to continue to come through a dangerous trip.”
Cuccinelli is an immigration hardliner who joined the Trump administration as acing CIS director earlier this month.
His assessment stands in contrast to what Martinez’s grieving family members have said.
Martinez’s mother, Rosa Ramirez, told CNN that her son died while trying to save his daughter’s life.
Tania Vanessa Ávalos, Oscar’s wife and Angie Valeria’s mother, told the Mexican newspaper La Jornada that her family had grown increasingly desperate. Temperatures reached over 110 degrees at the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, where the family had been waiting to present themselves at a US port of entry and seek asylum, she said.
At the end of May, more than 2,000 migrants were waiting “in conditions of hunger and overcrowding” there to seek asylum at ports where, according to La Jornada, US agents granted an average of three appointments per week.
They had been in a migrant camp in Matamoros since Sunday, the newspaper said, citing Ávalos.
“Óscar Alberto took Valeria in his arms and entered the water; he swam to other side and reached mainland, where he left his daughter. Immediately after, he returned and went for Tania,” La Jornada wrote. “However, in an instant he realized that the girl, after seeing that he was getting away, threw herself into the water. Óscar Alberto returned and managed to get a hold of the little girl, but a strong current dragged and sank them.”
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro suggested during Wednesday night’s Democratic debate that the Trump administration’s policy of limiting asylum at ports of entry led to the pair’s deaths.
The Trump administration’s policy, called “metering,” has led to longer wait times, though it’s difficult to ascribe motive behind a migrant’s decision to cross the border illegally. Customs and Border Protection has said it doesn’t know how many migrants have been turned away as a result of metering.
Cuccinelli on Thursday also blamed migrants themselves for allegedly patronizing drug cartels who use “the border as essentially a toll booth” to try and enter the United States, claiming it’s the “tragedy” of US immigration laws drawing migrants to make dangerous trips.
“They’re paying to get through, so let’s not kid ourselves about how dangerous a trip that our laws as they stand now are attracting these people into,” Cuccinelli said. “And that tragedy will only end when Congress finally fixes these loopholes.”