BRIDGEWATER, N.J. — President Trump on Saturday opened a new front in the immigration debate, diverting attention away from his administration’s treatment of undocumented immigrants to a broader fight over the federal agency charged with detaining and deporting them.
In a pair of tweets from his private golf club in Bedminister, New Jersey, Trump forcefully defended the performance of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and lambasted Democrats as pushing a “radical left” agenda to abolish it, even though only a handful have publicly supported doing so.
“To the great and brave men and women of ICE, do not worry or lose your spirit,” Trump wrote in one tweet. “You are doing a fantastic job of keeping us safe by eradicating the worst criminal elements.”
In an interview on Fox News set to air Sunday, Trump suggested that the issue would hurt Democrats in the midterm elections because ICE helps eradicate violent gangs.
“I hope they keep thinking about it because they’re going to get beaten so badly,” he told Maria Bartiromo, host of “Sunday Morning Futures.” “You get rid of ICE, you’re going to have a country that you’re going to be afraid to walk out of your house. I love that issue if they’re going to actually do that.”
Over the past week, several prominent Democrats have proposed eliminating ICE, citing what they say is its unjust treatment of immigrants. Among them were Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old Democratic socialist who upset Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., in a primary election Tuesday, and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Though other Democrats, including party leaders in the Senate and House, have not gone that far in their criticism, the debate over ICE has thrust an agency with 20,000 employees into the public spotlight after years of whiplash over the scope of its central mission since its founding in 2003.
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“We need to rebuild our immigration system from top to bottom, starting by replacing ICE with something that reflects our morality,” Warren said at a rally in Boston on Saturday.
Housed within the sprawling Department of Homeland Security, ICE is responsible for arresting and deporting the 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally. But the agency has been criticized by liberal activists for its tactics, including workplace raids and the deportations of immigrants whose children are U.S. citizens.
During the Obama administration, executive actions aimed to narrow ICE’s mission by targeting its limited enforcement resources to violent criminals and repeat offenders, as President Barack Obama sought to provide deportation relief to others. Deportations fell from a high of 434,000 in 2013 to 344,000 in 2016.
But Trump, who ran on a hard line immigration platform, eased the ICE guidelines in his first week in office, as his administration declared no groups would be broadly granted exemptions to deportation laws.
The recent public outcry over the Trump administration’s family separation policy has focused renewed attention on the treatment of immigrants at the border. However, it is Customs and Border Protection, a separate division under DHS, that carried out the policy, sending parents to face prosecution at federal courthouses while their children were turned over to Health and Human Services.
Trump’s reversal in the form of an executive order mandating that the families are not separated has raised new questions over how long the administration will detain them and in what conditions.
Ocasio’s upset of Crowley, the fourth-ranking House Democrat, raised the question over whether her more liberal positions were indicative of a party shifting further to the left. Asked on CNN about her proposal to abolish ICE, Gillibrand said “I don’t think ICE today is working as intended. I believe that it has become a deportation force.”
Gillibrand suggested separating the agency’s functions under different divisions to “build something that actually works,” though she did not offer specifics.
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“We should protect families that need our help and that’s not what ICE is doing today,” she said.
Yet other Democrats fear that such a position is fraught for the party as Trump continues to paint immigrants as dangerous to put his political rivals on the defensive.
“I think it’s a winning issue for him,” said Leon Fresco, an immigration attorney who served as an aide to Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., during Congress’ unsuccessful effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2013-2014. “If it’s a binary choice and people think it’s the end of immigration enforcement, that’s not a good place for us to be.”
In his tweets, Trump praised ICE for working to “liberate” Long Island from the grasp of MS-13, a transnational gang. The president has twice visited that region to discuss the dangers of criminal immigrants, who he has called “animals.”
“The radical left Dems want you out,” Trump wrote in his tweet, referring to ICE. “Next it will be all police. Zero chance, It will never happen!”
A senior White House official said the administration would be “leaning aggressively into the fight” over ICE.
“This is a political suicide march for the Democratic Party,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House thinking. “The Democrats have literally moved the immigration debate to the terrain of: Should the country enforce our immigrations laws - yes or no? These are thoughts once relegated to the outermost fringes of the Democratic Party. Now there’s not one Democratic leader willing to repudiate these comments.”
One Democratic aide in the House, who was not authorized to speak on the record, called proposals to abolish ICE “stupid” and said the strategy would “play right into Trump’s hands.”
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This aide said the party should focus on “the cruelty of the actions around family separations and some of the ridiculous tactics used by ICE to bully state and local governments” to comply with federal immigration detainers.
“But the abolish ICE debate oversimplifies everything,” the aide said. “You rarely get anywhere through policymaking by hashtag.”
Alarmed by the rhetoric, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which has been critical of Trump’s immigration agenda, developed talking points to emphasize the “inhumane and harsh” treatment of immigrants by ICE but also stressed the importance of other functions of the agency, such as investigating cybercrime and counter-narcotic operations, according to the Daily Beast.
Democratic leaders have also refrained from calling for the outright elimination of ICE, instead focusing on reforming the agency.
Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., “believes that ICE has been on the wrong end of far too many inhumane and unconstitutional practices to be allowed to continue without an immediate and fundamental overhaul,” said her spokesman, Drew Hammill.
John Sandweg, who served as acting ICE director in the Obama administration, said the fierce criticism of ICE risked further harming morale in an agency made up largely of employees who are trying to enforce the laws without a political agenda.
WikiLeaks released a list of names of thousands of ICE employees, along with personal information, such as phone numbers, that was collected from publicly available sources.
“The men and women of ICE are doing what they are told,” Sandweg said. Of Democrats, he added: “Their beef is not with ICE - it’s with Donald Trump.”