Democrats are to blame for the tragic image of a father and his 23-month-old daughter dead in the Rio Grande, President Trump said Wednesday.
“Open borders mean people drowning in the rivers,” the president told reporters who demanded his reaction to the photo, which ran in Mexican papers earlier this week. The New York Times placed the image on its front page on Wednesday.
The father and daughter, from El Salvador, tried to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico to Texas. But the girl got caught in the current and then the father was swept up by the waters, drowning them both on Sunday. Their bodies were recovered Monday.
The photo shows them washed up on the Mexican side of the river, the girl tucked inside her father’s arm, with her head shrouded in his black T-shirt.
The image sparked massive soul-searching on Capitol Hill.
Democrats said the deaths of father and daughter lie at the feet of Mr. Trump.
They said the man, Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez, and girl, Valeria, had wanted to come to the U.S. but were stacked up in a backlog of asylum-seekers waiting at the border in Mexico.
The Democrats said the backlog is the result of a U.S. “metering” policy that limits the number of people who can demand entry each day at border crossings. They said that frustrates families, spurring them to cross illegally.
“In this terrible humanitarian crisis that they are escaping from — violence, political violence, gang violence, all kinds of things — they are actually choosing to cross a river because we, the United States, don’t even open a port of entry so that they can cross,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Washington Democrat.
Witnesses on the border told Mexican authorities the family was in fact frustrated by the backlog, and tried to swim the river because they didn’t want to wait.
But the family wasn’t fleeing violence, the man’s mother said.
Rosa Ramirez, speaking from her home in El Salvador, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Martinez took his wife, daughter and brother on the trip north because he wanted a better job than the pizzeria he worked in back home.
“I would say to those who are thinking of migrating, they should think it over because not everyone can live that American dream you hear about,” Ms. Ramirez said.
Looking for a better job is not usually a reason to win asylum in the U.S. — but current U.S. policies allow people to make bogus asylum claims, then get released into the U.S. while their cases are heard.
More than 80% won’t win their cases, but they do gain a foothold here and many then ignore their deportation orders after they lose their case. Homeland Security doesn’t have the personnel — or, in most cases, the willpower — to attempt to deport them.
Mr. Trump calls that a “loophole.” On Wednesday he begged Congress to change the law, raising the standards so officers can reject initial asylum claims more easily.
Security experts say that could change the incentives that are spurring people to make the dangerous trip.
Reaction to the image of the father and daughter was on the lips of everyone on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, Oregon Democrat, had a copy of the photo from The New York Times when he took to the Senate floor Wednesday. He said it was one reason he couldn’t vote for a $4.6 billion emergency border funding bill.
He said the bill didn’t go far enough in curtailing Mr. Trump’s border policies.
“There is no moral code or religious tradition that enables us to mistreat children — and certainly not to use them as pawns in a political power play,” he said. “We need to address these fundamental issues, and those issues are not addressed in the House bill or the Senate bill.”
He was in the minority, though.
The bill cleared on an overwhelming 84-8 vote, with only the fringes of both parties opposing it.
Senators passed the bill after first rejecting House Democrats’ partisan version, which was tilted far to the left in order to keep liberal Democrats on board — but which cost the party all but token support from Republicans.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her leadership team were struggling Wednesday to figure out their next steps.
In a phone call with Mr. Trump she asked him to accept a few changes to the Senate bill. She’s under pressure to deliver some changes to prevent her left flank from deserting on a final vote.
The president, speaking to reporters, didn’t commit to Mrs. Pelosi’s changes, but did say he was optimistic they can get something done this week.
“I think that a lot of people are starting to realize I was right when I said there was a crisis at the border,” the president said.
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