Ken Cuccinelli, one of President Donald Trump’s top immigration officials, appeared to blame the father who drowned while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border for the deaths of the man and his young daughter on Thursday.
During an interview, CNN’s Erin Burnett asked if Cuccinelli was worried that a viral photo of the migrant father and his daughter could become an iconic image of the Trump administration’s hardline policy at the southern border. (GRAPHIC PHOTO WARNING) In the image, the bodies of Óscar Alberto Martínez and his 23-month-old child, Valeria, can be seen face down in the water of the Rio Grande. The pair had fled El Salvador, hoping to apply for asylum in America.
Burnett: Are you worried, director, … that the image that we see of that 23-month child and her father, dead, is going to be like the image from Syria of the little boy on the beach… That this image ends up being what represents the Trump administration’s policies on the border?
Cuccinelli: 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. …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.
The photograph set off a renewed firestorm over Trump’s immigration policies. The White House has faced sharp criticism over the treatment of young children at border detention facilities this month, including one site that was found to have filthy conditions and a lack of basic toiletries like toothbrushes and soap.
Cuccinelli, who serves as the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, is tasked with overseeing legal immigration in the U.S., including those who apply for visas, asylum and citizenship.
Trump has replaced many of the nation’s top immigration officials in recent months, dissatisfied with their efforts to rein in migration across the U.S.-Mexico border. Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia and an immigration hardliner, was tapped to lead USCIS earlier this month. He has faced fierce opposition from both political parties who said he’d have a difficult time getting confirmed if the president sought to make the move permanent.
“Our nation has the most generous legal immigration system in the world and we must zealously safeguard its promise for those who lawfully come here,” Cuccinelli said in a statement at the time. “I look forward to working with the men and women of USCIS to ensure our legal immigration system operates effectively and efficiently while deterring fraud and protecting the American people.”
On Wednesday, a coalition of American asylum officers lambasted the Trump administration’s policies at the southern border, specifically a provision that allows the federal government to return some migrants seeking refuge to Mexico while they await a decision on their asylum applications.
“By forcing a vulnerable population to return to a hostile territory where they are likely to face persecution, the [Migrant Protection Protocols] abandons our tradition of providing a safe haven to the persecuted and violates our international and domestic legal obligations,” a union representing federal employees, including the officers, wrote in a court filing.
The officers also noted that in their estimation, Trump’s current rules were “contrary to the moral fabric of our nation.”