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The Trump administration has come out with its stance on the heartbreaking photo of the migrant father and daughter who drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande: It’s their fault, not ours.
“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,” acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli said on CNN Thursday night. “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 image of the El Salvadoran father and daughter, Oscar and Valeria Martinez, has been compared to the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned in 2015 while trying to reach Europe. It’s become a symbol of the Trump administration’s policies regarding asylum — which critics say have deadly consequences.
Martínez and his family may have attempted to apply for asylum “in the legal fashion,” as Cuccinelli put it. Tania Vanessa Ávalos, Martinez’s widow, told reporters that she arrived in Matamoros, Mexico, with her husband and young daughter on Sunday. They attempted to cross the bridge into Brownsville, Texas, to plead asylum but were told they had to stay in the Mexican border city until Monday because the bridge was closed. That’s when they decided to cross the river.
The family lived in Altavista, a community outside El Salvador’s capital essentially under gang control, Martínez’s mother told El Diario de Hoy, a local paper. They weren’t fleeing gang violence, Martínez’s mother said, but instead coming to the U.S. because they could no longer survive on just $10 a day.
It’s likely the family would have had to wait longer than a day if they had gone back to the bridge on Monday. The Trump administration has stationed federal immigration officers on the bridges that connect Mexican border cities with U.S. ports of entry since last summer. Their job is to limit the number of asylum seekers who can cross daily, a policy known as “metering.”
Migrants, many of whom are from Central America and Cuba, are told to take a number and come back when it’s their turn. They’ve set up tent cities near the bridges, which have become dangerous.
Hundreds of migrants are on the waitlist in Matamoros, according to the Washington Post. Woodson Martin, a volunteer who provides food and water to migrants there, told the Post that women in the city are often forced into prostitution, while men are forced into gangs. The dangers aren’t limited to Matamoros. More than 3,000 migrants are on the waitlist in Juárez, many of whom have become prey for drug cartels and gangs. Earlier this month, a Honduran asylum seeker was raped and kidnapped by Mexican federal police in the city, El Diario reported. The police then handed her over to a gang, which demanded a ransom of $5,000 from her family.
The situation has become so dire that asylum officers have turned into public whistleblowers. Several asylum officers told Vox that they’re all but forced to keep migrants in Mexico, even as border cities become increasingly dangerous for them. One labor union that represents Citizenship and Imigrationasylum officers filed an amicus brief this week claiming that the agency’s policies violate federal and international law.
But Cuccinelli told CNN those officers were “in denial of reality.”
“The reality is,” Cuccinelli said, “until we fix the asylum loopholes that encourage to come here fraudulently, we will keep seeing these tragedies.”
Correction 6/28 11:04 a.m. ET: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that migrants are on waiting lists in Brownsville, Texas. They're on waiting lists across the border in Matamoros. The text has been updated.
Cover image: In this June 7, 2014 file photo, former Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli gestures as he addresses the Virginia GOP Convention in Roanoke, Va. Cuccinelli is suing a conservative political action committee that he says raised millions of dollars invoking his name but only contributed $10,000 to his campaign. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)