Democratic presidential candidates have blamed Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies for the deaths of migrants on the US border after a graphic picture of a father and his daughter lying dead in the Rio Grande shocked the world.
The photograph showed the drowned bodies of Salvadoran refugee Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez, 25, and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, locked in a final embrace as they attempted to cross the river from the Mexican city of Matamoros to Brownville, Texas.
The image has come to symbolise the large-scale humanitarian crisis on America’s southern border and prompted an outpouring of sympathy from across the globe.
Leading Democrats, ahead of the first primary debate of the 2020 race on Wednesday night, were quick to lay the blame for the tragedy directly at the US president’s door.
"Trump is responsible for these deaths," presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke bluntly stated in a tweet.
Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, the two front runners in the Democratic race, also lambasted Mr Trump. Mr Sanders called the photograph “horrific", saying it demonstrated "the reckless disregard for basic humanity that have come from Trump’s policies".
Mr Biden called it "gut-wrenching" and "unconscionable". "History will judge how we respond to the Trump," he added.
Mr Trump was defiant on Wednesday, saying the picture was proof that he "was right” about a crisis on the border – turning fire on Democrats who have opposed his immigration policies, including funding for his proposed border wall.
This image is gut-wrenching. The cruelty we're seeing at our border is unconscionable. History will judge how we respond to the Trump Administration’s treatment of immigrant families & children—we can’t be silent. This isn't who we are. This is not America.https://t.co/ZeMBmwUHxU
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) June 26, 2019
"I hate it," he said of the picture. "And I know it could stop immediately if the Democrats change the law. And then that father, who probably was this wonderful guy, with his daughter, things like that wouldn’t happen. That’s a very dangerous journey."
"If we had the right laws, that the Democrats are not letting us have, those people, they wouldn’t be coming up. They wouldn’t be trying," Mr Trump said.
Mr Trump has made cracking down on illegal immigration and asylum claims a cornerstone of his presidency, most recently with a plan to send thousands of asylum seekers back to Mexico while their cases are considered.
As part of the plan, the Mexican government has so far deployed more than 20,000 troops to its borders to stem the tide of migrants attempting to travel to America.
But human rights organisations have warned that the move risks causing migrants to attempt ever more dangerous routes to reach the US.
Mr Trump’s immigration policies have struggled against legal challenges and a number of high profile staff departures. Kirstjen Nielsen, the Homeland Security secretary, left the role in April amid frustration she was not doing enough to tackle the immigration numbers.
Mexican Migrants Journey
Just this week, the head of the Customs and Border Protection agency announced that he was stepping down next month, amid outrage over his agency’s treatment of detained migrant children.
The new acting commissioner, Mark Morgan, an immigration hard-liner and former Fox News contributor, is a strong proponent for the nationwide deportation raids that Mr Trump announced last week.
As the photo of Mr Ramirez and his young daughter was broadcast around the world, Democrats in the House of Representatives approved an emergency bill for $4.5 billion in humanitarian aid to address the plight of migrants at the border.
The bill was voted down by the Senate, which has drafted its own bill that would allocate $4.59 billion for the border crisis, but with fewer conditions on how the money can be spent, adding to the uncertainty over whether a deal can be reached.
How could you look at the @AP's picture of a Salvadoran father and daughter 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? https://t.co/nyy7twkPUx
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) June 26, 2019
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, who earlier produced a large copy of the photo of Mr Ramirez and his daughter in the chamber, said he and most Democrats would vote for the bipartisan bill.
"How could president Trump look at this picture and not understand these are human beings, fleeing violence and persecution, willing to risk a perilous – sometimes fatal – journey in search of a better life," he said.
According to local media reports, Tania Vanessa Avalos, Mr Ramirez’s wife, said the family had been kept for two months in the Puerta México camp, waiting for an appointment to discuss their asylum claim.
These families seeking asylum are often fleeing extreme violence. And what happens when they arrive? Trump says, 'Go back to where you came from.' That is inhumane. Children are dying. This is a stain on our moral conscience. https://t.co/NHly7QTiAq
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) June 26, 2019
On Sunday, Mr Ramirez and his wife decided to abandon the asylum process and attempt an illegal crossing into the United States by swimming the Rio Grande river.
Mr Ramirez took Valeria in his arms and swam across the river, setting her safely on the other side before returning to his wife.
But as he started swimming back, his daughter fell into the water. He turned back and grabbed his daughter, but the pair was then swallowed by a strong current as Valeria’s mother looked on in horror.
The following morning their bodies were discovered, 500 metres from the spot where the current took hold.
Mr Ramirez’s family initially faced immense financial costs of up to $7,500 to repatriate their relatives’ bodies, but the Salvadorian government has said it will pay for the funeral arrangements.
The case has already drawn comparisons with that of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee whose body was photographed off the coast of the Greek island of Kos.
“It is very unfortunate that this happens,” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said at a news conference. He added that as increasing numbers of migrants are turned away by the US, “there are people who lose their lives in the desert or crossing the Rio Grande.”
The Vatican said that Pope Francis had seen the image “with immense sadness”.
“The Pope is profoundly saddened by their death, and is praying for them and for all migrants who have lost their lives while seeking to flee war and misery,” a spokesman said.