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Trump, Dems clash over who is to blame for migrant deaths

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President Donald Trump listens to a question as he speaks with reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Washington. Trump is en route to Japan for the G-20 summit. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump and Democrats clashed Wednesday over who was to blame for the deaths of a migrant father and his daughter whose drowned bodies were seen in searing photos from the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Watching that image of Oscar and his daughter Valeria was heartbreaking. It should also piss us all off,” former Obama housing chief Julian Castro said during the first of two nights of Democratic presidential debates. “And it should spur us to action.”

Trump, when asked about the image, said, “I hate it.” But he argued the deaths would not have happened without Democrats dragging their feet on congressional legislation to toughen security at the border.

“I know it could stop immediately if the Democrats change the law. They have to change the laws. And then that father, who probably was this wonderful guy, with his daughter, things like that wouldn’t happen.”

The photo of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and daughter Valeria, who were trying to cross into the U.S. after fleeing from El Salvador when they were swept into the Rio Grande, added an emotional punch to a debate at the center of the 2020 White House contest. Trump is campaigning on hard-line immigration policies aimed at reducing the flow of migrants coming to the U.S. — policies Democrats have called inhumane.

Castro, also a former San Antonio mayor, said that if elected, he’d use executive orders to immediately end the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policies, which briefly led to immigrant families being separated at the border. Other candidates made similar promises, and said they’d work with Congress to hammer out pathways to U.S. citizenship for millions of immigrants living in the country illegally — especially those brought here as children.

But there wasn’t total agreement on immigration among the 10 presidential hopefuls on the debate stage. When former congressman Beto O’Rourke said “we will spare no expense to reunite families” that remain separated, Castro interrupted, demanding to know why his fellow Texan won’t agree with him that crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally should be fully decriminalized.

“I just think it’s a mistake, Beto,” Castro said, dismissing O’Rourke’s concern that doing so could protect drug- and people-smugglers. “I think that you should do your homework on this issue.”

Wednesday’s debate also featured a lot of Spanish, with O’Rourke speaking at length in the language during his first answer, and later getting and answering a question in it. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Castro also spoke briefly in Spanish.

Before the debate started, several Democratic candidates visited a detention facility for immigrant teenagers about 40 miles southwest of Miami, in Homestead, Florida.

“There were children who were being marched like little soldiers, like little prisoners,” said Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who wasn’t allowed inside but was permitted to look over the fence.

California Rep. Eric Swalwell and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota also visited the facility. O’Rourke and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are planning to go, as are Castro, Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, former Rep. John Delaney and Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

The Senate and House have approved separate legislation to provide funding for the care of migrants streaming into the U.S., but the bills have yet to be merged and the next step is unclear. Congressional leaders hope to send Trump a compromise measure before lawmakers leave town for a July 4 recess.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer called Trump blaming Democrats “a disgrace,” admonishing the president: “You are head of the Executive Branch. You control what’s happening at the border.”

From the scorching Sonora desert to the at-times fast-moving Rio Grande, the U.S.-Mexico border can be perilous for those attempting to cross illegally. Two babies, a toddler and a woman were found dead on Sunday, overcome by heat. Elsewhere, three children and an adult from Honduras died in April after their raft capsized on the Rio Grande, and a 6-year-old from India was found dead earlier this month in Arizona.

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Associated Press writers Alan Fram in Washington and Alexandra Jaffe in Miami contributed to this report.

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