The image of the father and his toddler daughter, lying dead on the riverbank after drowning on Sunday, has spread around the world

By Matt McNulty
June 28, 2019 07:01 PM
Douglas Graham/Getty Images

A top immigration official under President Donald Trump said the notorious drowning death of a migrant father and his toddler daughter at the U.S.-Mexico border reflected one thing: the father’s poor decision-making.

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, was interviewed by CNN’s Erin Burnett on Thursday when he was asked if a wrenching picture of dad and child was symbolic of the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

“No in fact, just the opposite,” Cuccinelli replied.

“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 Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, who has also been identified as Angie Valeria.

“And not only [did Ramírez die], but his daughter died tragically as well,” Cuccinelli said on CNN. “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.”

Advocates argue otherwise, saying the Trump administration’s extreme restrictions on asylum-seekers encourage their desperation.

Ramírez’s relatives have said he left El Salvador with his young family in April seeking more economic opportunity in America. (He had made about $350 in a pizzeria and living outside El Salvador’s capital.)

Ramírez, along with his daughter and wife, reportedly took to the river only after trying to request asylum at a port of entry, though under the Trump administration such requests are heavily “metered,” or restricted. (The official purpose of metering is to prevent overwhelming border resources, though that has been disputed.)

Ramírez and his young daughter’s bodies were found on the banks of the Rio Grande river early Monday after they drowned while trying to cross from Matamoros, Mexico, into Brownsville, Texas.

The photo of their bodies, taken by a local journalist, shows Valeria’s small body pressed next to her father where she had been slipped under his shirt. Her arm is still thrown across his neck.

The image was first published in a Mexican newspaper and then spread around the world.

From left: Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter, Valeria
North Texas Dream Team

Reports differ about whether Ramírez, wife Tania Vanessa Ávalos and Valeria were able to actually meet with anyone about asylum.

According to the Associated Press, citing a Mexican government official, the family went to the U.S. Consulate on Sunday.

But the New York Times and Washington Post reported that the family was told the bridge they needed to cross was closed until Monday. (The State Department and Customs and Border Protection declined to comment to PEOPLE.)

Cuccinelli’s comments to CNN on Thursday echo President Trump’s criticism of the so-called “loopholes” in immigration law, which he contends allow too many immigrants bringing too much crime into the country — an argument he has often made in hyperbolic terms.

Trump said he “hate[d]” the deaths of Ramírez and his daughter while Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro, a former housing secretary, said Wednesday, “Watching that image of Oscar and his daughter Valeria was heartbreaking. It should also piss us all off.”

Speaking to the AP, his mother said, “I begged them not to go [to America], but he wanted to scrape together money to build a home. They hoped to be there a few years and save up for the house.”

More than 280 people died at the border last year.