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 Bedminster, N.J., 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. Trump’s public support of ICE came as tens of thousands marched in cities across the country to protest a “zero tolerance” policy under which all adults who crossed the border illegally were referred for criminal prosecution, resulting in more than 2,500 children being separated from adult relatives.
“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 who upset Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) in a primary election Tuesday, and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (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.
“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.
ICE, which is housed within the sprawling Department of Homeland Security, is responsible for arresting and deporting the estimated 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 deportation of undocumented immigrants whose children are U.S. citizens.
The Obama administration aimed to narrow ICE’s mission by targeting its limited enforcement resources to violent criminals while seeking to provide deportation relief to others. Deportations fell from a high of 434,000 in 2013 to 344,000 in 2016 under President Barack Obama.
But Trump, who ran on a hard-line immigration platform, eased the ICE guidelines in his first week in office as his administration declared that no groups would be broadly granted exemptions to deportation laws.
The recent public outcry over the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from adults who illegally cross the border from Mexico has focused renewed attention on the treatment of immigrants at the southern border. However, it is Customs and Border Protection — a separate division under the DHS — and not ICE, that carried out the policy, sending parents to face prosecution in federal court while their children were turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services.
Trump’s policy reversal, in the form of an executive order mandating that families not be separated, has raised new questions, over how long the administration will detain families and in what conditions.
Ocasio-Cortez’s upset of Crowley, the fourth-ranking House Democrat, raised the question of whether her more liberal positions were indicative of a party shifting further to the left. Asked on CNN about her support for abolishing 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.
“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 lawyer who served as an aide to Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) during Congress’s 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, whom 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 immigration 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.”
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 carry out anti-drug operations, according to the Daily Beast.
Other Democratic leaders also have refrained from calling for the elimination of ICE, instead focusing on reforming the agency.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (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 risks further harming morale in an agency made up largely of employees who are trying to enforce the laws without a political agenda.
The anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks released a list of names of thousands of ICE employees, along with personal information, such as phone numbers, that was collected from public databases.
On Saturday, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen named Ronald D. Vitiello to serve as acting director of ICE, after the departure of interim director Thomas Homan, who announced his resignation in the spring in the face of a stalled confirmation process in the Senate.
“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.”