WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump is blaming Democrats for the tragic drowning of a man and his 23-month-old daughter at the U.S.-Mexico border that was captured in a searing photo that has highlighted the perils that migrants face.
Democrats have been pushing back, saying his "political game of blame" is a "disgrace."
In the photo, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his young daughter Valeria lay face down in shallow water along the bank of the Rio Grande -- his black shirt hiked up to his chest with the girl tucked inside. Her arm was draped around his neck suggesting she clung to him in her final moments, before their bodies were discovered Monday morning.
Trump was asked about the photo as he left the White House for a trip to Asia on Wednesday afternoon, and told reporters, "I hate it."
But he said the deaths could have been prevented and blamed Democrats for failing to pass legislation he claims would stop people from trying to make the dangerous trek.
Trump said the father was probably a "wonderful guy."
But Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, said it's the president's policies that forced the father and daughter to make the "perilous journey."
"If Óscar and Valeria had been allowed to petition for asylum in the United States within El Salvador, if they ask for asylum to come here, but did it at the El Salvadoran embassy, as Democrats have proposed, they wouldn't have had to make this perilous journey," Schumer said while addressing the Senate Wednesday. "If the administration had followed through on foreign aid to stabilize their home country's government, they would've not had to make this perilous journey."
He called Trump's placement of blame on the Democrats a "disgrace."
"If our ports of entry were adequately staffed, we had enough asylum judges, and our asylum laws respected, they might not have perished," Schumer said. "But the president only wants not to solve the problem. He jumps from proposed solution to proposed solution and then abandons them. And instead, he says, 'let's blame the Democrats.' That's a disgrace."
Schumer stood next to and pointed at an enlarged printout of the image showing the drowned father and daughter.
"President Trump, I want you to look at the photo, these are not drug dealers, or vagrants, or criminals. They are people simply fleeing a horrible situation in their home country for a better life," he said. "How could President Trump look at this picture and not understand that these are human beings fleeing violence and persecution, willing to risk a perilous--sometimes fatal--journey in search of a better life?"
The shocking photograph of the sad discovery of the bodies was captured by journalist Julia Le Duc and published by Mexican newspaper La Jornada. It highlights the perils faced by mostly Central American migrants fleeing violence and poverty and hoping for asylum in the U.S.
"I was drawn to the girl's arm on her father," Le Duc said as she described arriving at the scene. "It was something that moved me in the extreme because it reflects that until her last breath, she was joined to him not only by the shirt but also in that embrace in which they passed together into death."
The father, Oscar, was frustrated because the family from El Salvador was unable to present themselves to U.S. authorities and request asylum, so he swam across the river on Sunday with his daughter, Valeria, according to Le Duc's reporting for La Jornada.
He set her on the U.S. bank of the river and started back for his wife, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, but seeing him move away, the girl threw herself into the waters. Oscar returned and was able to grab Valeria, but the current swept them both away. Ávalos was not harmed.
The account was based on remarks by Ávalos to police at the scene -- "amid tears" and "screams" -- Le Duc told The Associated Press.
Tamaulipas immigration official Enrique Maciel said Ávalos would not be speaking to reporters. Authorities were releasing the bodies Wednesday to a funeral home, after which the bodies were expected to be flown to El Salvador on Thursday. Ávalos was to fly back with them.
"She is afflicted. She is suffering. It is a dream they had to get ahead as a family, the three of them, and she returns in mourning with only the bodies of her family," Maciel said.
Details of the incident were confirmed Tuesday by a Tamaulipas state government official who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, and by Oscar's mother back in El Salvador, Rosa Ramírez, who spoke with her daughter-in-law by phone afterward.
"When the girl jumped in is when he tried to reach her, but when he tried to grab the girl, he went in further... and he couldn't get out," Ramírez told the AP. "He put her in his shirt, and I imagine he told himself, 'I've come this far' and decided to go with her."
The U.S.-Mexico border region has long been perilous for those trying to cross illegally into the United States between ports of entry, from the fast-moving Rio Grande to the scalding Sonoran Desert. A total of 283 people died while trying to cross last year; figures for 2019 have not yet been released.
The search for Oscar and his daughter was suspended Sunday due to darkness, and their bodies were discovered the next morning near Matamoros, Mexico, across from Brownsville, Texas, several hundred yards from where they had tried to cross and just a half-mile from an international bridge.
Tamaulipas immigration and civil defense officials have toured shelters beginning weeks ago to warn against attempting to cross the river, said to be swollen with water released from dams for irrigation. On the surface, the Rio Grande appears placid, but strong currents run beneath.
Ramírez said her son and his family left El Salvador on April 3 and spent about two months at a shelter in Tapachula, near Mexico's border with Guatemala.
"It's tough, it's kind of shocking, that image," the 25-year-old man's mother, Rosa Ramírez, told The Associated Press. "But at the same time, it fills me with tenderness. I feel so many things, because at no time did he let go of her."
"You can see how he protected her," she said. "They died in each other's arms."
Ramírez had shared a sea-green brick home with barred windows in San Martin on the outskirts of the capital, San Salvador, with her son, his 21-year-old wife Tania Vanessa Ávalos and their daughter until the young family decided to make the journey north.
In their working-class neighborhood of about 40,000, Óscar worked in a pizzeria and Ávalos as a cashier in a fast-food restaurant, Ramírez said.
The area has had problems with gang violence but these days it's calm, she said, adding that he never had any problems with gangs -- they left for economic reasons.
Ramírez said that she had given them the big room in the two-bedroom house, but they dreamed of saving money for a place of their own and that drove the family to head for the United States in early April.
"I begged them not to go, but he wanted to scrape together money to build a home," Ramírez said. "They hoped to be there a few years and save up for the house."
"I told him, 'Son, don't go. But if you do go, leave me the girl,'" Ramírez said.
"'No, mamá,'" she said he replied. "'How can you think that I would leave her?'"
El Salvador's foreign ministry said it was working to assist the family, including Ávalos, who was at a border migrant shelter following the drownings.
"Very regrettable that this would happen," Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said Tuesday in response to a question about the photograph. "We have always denounced that as there is more rejection in the United States, there are people who lose their lives in the desert or crossing" the river.
A U.S. "metering" policy has dramatically reduced the number of migrants who are allowed to request asylum, down from dozens per day previously to sometimes just a handful at some ports of entry.
The Tamaulipas government official said the family arrived in Matamoros early Sunday and went to the U.S. Consulate to try to get a date to request asylum. The mother is 21 years old and the father was 25, he added.
But waits are long there as elsewhere along the border. Last week, a shelter director said only about 40 to 45 asylum interviews were being conducted in Matamoros each week, while somewhere in the neighborhood of 800-1,700 names were on a waiting list.
It's unclear what happened to the family at the U.S. Consulate, but later in the day they made the decision to cross. The Tamaulipas official said the father and daughter set off from a small park that abuts the river. Civil defense officials arrived at the scene at 7 p.m. Sunday and later took the wife to the shelter.
"It's a horrifying image," Maureen Meyer, a specialist on immigration at the Washington Office on Latin America, which advocates for human rights in the region, said of the photograph. "And I think it speaks so clearly to the real risks of these U.S. programs that are either returning people back to Mexico seeking asylum or in this case limiting how many people can enter the U.S. every day."
The United States has also been expanding its program under which asylum seekers wait in Mexico while their claims are processed in U.S. courts. It's a wait that could last many months or even years amid a backlogged U.S. immigration court system.
This week Nuevo Laredo in Tamaulipas, the same state where Matamoros is located, said it will become the latest city to receive returnees as soon as Friday.
Many migrant shelters are overflowing on the Mexican side, and cartels hold sway over much of Tamaulipas and have been known to kidnap and kill migrants.
Meanwhile, Mexico is stepping up its own crackdown on immigration in response to U.S. pressure, with much of the focus on slowing the flow in the country's south.
"With greater crackdowns and restrictions," said Cris Ramón, senior immigration policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank in Washington, "we could see more desperate measures by people trying to enter Mexico or the U.S."
In a Salvadoran chat group for people thinking about forming a migrant caravan -- a phenomenon that drew the ire of U.S. President Donald Trump last year but has all but vanished after Mexican immigration enforcement started cracking down -- members were having a raw discussion of the perils of the journey and whether it's right for parents to bring children.
"If one goes there, they shouldn't bring children, because going there is risking everything and a child is not prepared for that," read one message, adding that minors should be left with loved ones back home.
"The thing is, it's more likely that they give you help with children," another person replied.
"But that's only if they manage to arrive there... and that help should come when they are on the road... But no, on the road there is no help for any child and there is where it's most needed," came the response.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. This story was reported from Los Angeles.