Trump official blames migrant father for drowning with daughter

A Trump administration immigration official has blamed a migrant father for his own drowning death and that of his young daughter, which was captured in widely circulated images that highlight the peril and desperation faced by migrant families blocked from entering the US at the border with Mexico.

Ken Cuccinelli was named earlier this month as acting head of US Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS), the agency that handles immigration administration. He told CNN he was not concerned the photo would become emblematic of the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policy.

“The reason we have tragedies like that on the border is because that father didn’t wait to go through the asylum process in the legal fashion and decided to cross the river and not only died but his daughter died tragically as well,” Cuccinelli said on Thursday night.

The photographs, taken on Monday, show Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, 26, and his 23-month-old daughter Valeria lying face down in shallow water after dying in the Rio Grande, the river that divides Mexico from Texas. The image has been compared to the 2015 image of three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, who drowned off the Greek island of Kos after being en route there with other refugees fleeing conflict.

The bodies of the young father and daughter have been repatriated to their native El Salvador, accompanied by Martínez’s wife, Vanessa Ávalos, 21, who was standing on the riverbank when her husband and daughter were swept away by the current.

As part of a broader crackdown on migration, the Trump administration has further restricted asylum and the backlog of legal cases. Migrants are routinely forced to wait for months south of the US border in order to start the asylum process, which has in turn driven people to make more dangerous border crossings such as trying to wade or swim across the treacherous Rio Grande.

Cuccinelli is the latest immigration hardliner the Trump administration has appointed to a senior government role, despite warnings from his own Republican party in the US Senate that Cuccinelli was unlikely to be confirmed to the permanent role.

In the past decade, Cuccinelli has said homosexual acts are “intrinsically wrong,” been tied to anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ campaigners and was criticized for a comment that seemed to compare immigrants to rats.

In 2018, he advocated for using “war powers” against migrants in an interview with the conservative website Breitbart News. He also said the US was not required to “keep” migrants, including asylum-seekers. “You just point them back across the river and let them swim for it,” Cuccinelli said.

Cuccinelli is also facing opposition from Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives and the union that represents about 13,000 USCIS workers. The union’s president, Danielle Spooner, said the appointment of Cuccinelli “spells the end of legal immigration as we know it”.

In June, House committee leaders said they had “deep concern” about Cuccinelli’s appointment because it circumvents rules about federal vacancies in a letter to the acting homeland security secretary.