Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, says U.S. policy is not to blame for the deaths of two migrants trying to cross the Rio Grande. (CNN/Screenshot/CNN)

Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said on CNN on Thursday night that a widely circulated photograph of a migrant father and his 23-month-old daughter who drowned on the banks of the Rio Grande was tragic, but that it was the father’s fault they died — and not the fault of U.S. asylum policy requiring migrants to wait in Mexico.

Cuccinelli, an immigration hard-liner nominated this month by President Trump to lead the federal agency that oversees legal immigration, including asylum, made the case while speaking on “Erin Burnett OutFront.” The news anchor asked whether Cuccinelli believed the graphic photo could be compared to the 2015 photo of the 3-year-old Syrian boy who had washed up on a beach, an image that had turned the world’s attention to the anguish confronting refugees trying to reach Europe. Would the photo of this father and daughter become a symbol of the Trump administration’s policies on the border? Burnett asked.

Cuccinelli said no, “in fact the opposite.”

“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,” said Cuccinelli, 50. “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.”

Cuccinelli, the former attorney general of Virginia, has long peddled far-right fare, supporting immigration causes that ultimately would land him in the president’s good graces. But his extreme positions have turned off some moderate Republicans. As a state lawmaker in Virginia, Cuccinelli once sponsored a bill that would strip undocumented immigrants’ U.S.-born children of their citizenship. He supported a bill banning undocumented immigrants from attending any state colleges. He has said a D.C. ordinance that doesn’t let animal-control workers kill rats is worse than U.S. immigration policy because, “You can’t break up rat families.”

Before joining the Trump administration, he appeared frequently on cable news to trumpet the president’s policies, as he did on Thursday.

The photo of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, 25, and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, lying facedown in the river drew global condemnation, helping to jolt lawmakers into passing a $4.6 billion emergency spending bill Thursday. Questions emerged immediately about how the tragedy could have been prevented. Contrary to Cuccinelli’s view, some have blamed U.S. policy for their deaths, pointing to a Trump administration policy known as “metering."

The policy restricts the number of migrants allowed to cross an international bridge and claim asylum at a U.S. port of entry per day. Instead, they must remain in Mexico at shelters or elsewhere until they are allowed through. Critics say that Mexico is unsafe and that forcing migrants to stay there puts them at risk of being victims of crime — an argument echoed by unionized U.S. asylum officers.

Some have argued that may have been why Martínez and his daughter attempted to cross the river instead, although there is nothing to indicate that they presented at an official border crossing and were turned away because of metering.

“This metering policy is basically what prompted Óscar and Valeria to make that risky swim across the river,” Julián Castro, a former secretary of housing and urban development, said during Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debate.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) also said on CNN Wednesday that the deaths were the product of this policy, the point of which is to “make conditions cruel enough to deter migration, cruel enough to get Congress to build this wall, and the results are tragic.” And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), while maintaining that Óscar and Valeria’s deaths should not “be a question of blame,” said it was a matter of understanding “the consequences of policy.”

Trump, by contrast, had blamed Democrats. He pointed to a lack of action to fix immigration and asylum “loopholes."

“The Democrats refuse to change the loopholes. They refuse to change the asylum,” Trump told reporters from the White House lawn Wednesday. “In one hour we can have it done. They want to have open borders, and open borders mean crime, and open borders mean people drowning in the rivers, and it’s a very dangerous thing.”

Republicans have often pointed to “loopholes” while seeking to enact more-restrictive immigration laws, and on Thursday night Cuccinelli did, too. Cuccinelli, Trump and other administration officials have claimed that many migrants come to “fraudulently” claim asylum to freely enter the country while waiting months or years for immigration hearings, which asylum attorneys have long disputed. Administration officials have used that argument to support the “Remain in Mexico” policy, formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols program, which is being challenged in federal court.

Earlier on Thursday, U.S. asylum officers argued that the policy is illegal and endangers the lives and well-being of migrants. In an amicus brief filed through their labor union, the officers urged the federal court to strike the policy down, as The Washington Post reported Thursday.

The officers said the policy is “fundamentally contrary to the moral fabric of our Nation and our international and domestic legal obligations."

The Migrant Protection Protocols program allow the government to return asylum seekers to Mexico as they await immigration hearings. The policy has sent 12,000 asylum seekers to wait in Mexico since January; it’s intended to deter them from coming to the country and to ease burdens on what officials describe as an overwhelmed asylum system.

But through their labor union, the asylum officers claimed this policy violated laws preventing the government from sending migrants back to countries where they fear persecution. The officers said the asylum system was already designed to absorb an influx of migrants and to suss out legitimate and illegitimate asylum claims, and that Trump’s policy was unnecessary.

Cuccinelli accused the asylum officers of being “in denial of reality.” He said the policy was badly needed, citing alleged false claims of asylum by migrants.

“The reality is, until we fix the asylum loopholes that encourage people to come here fraudulently, we will keep seeing these tragedies,” Cuccinelli said.

A federal judge struck down the Migrant Protection Protocols policy in April, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit allowed it to continue in May while the case remains under review.

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