President Trump on Monday offered robust praise of federal immigration officers, touting them as “heroes” at a White House event aimed at drawing a sharp contrast with Democrats over the enforcement of border-control laws.

In a speech, Trump called a crowd of 150 officers and agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) “great patriots” who have sought to protect the nation against crimes by undocumented immigrants.

The president also denounced Democrats who have called for the abolition of ICE over concerns that the agency has acted recklessly and cruelly in its efforts to round up and deport people living here illegally.

“For you having to be demeaned by people who have no idea what strength is, is really very sad,” Trump said. “They have no courage; they have no guts. They just have big, loud mouths. We don’t want to put up with that. I just want you to know you are loved and respected.”

The “Salute to the Heroes” event was the latest sign that the president is eager to elevate ICE as a campaign issue ahead of the midterm elections. Trump has sought to use calls from a small number of high-profile Democrats to terminate the 15-year-old agency to paint his political rivals as weak on enforcement, which the White House thinks will be a potent political message in the fall.

Trump has also criticized Democrats for opposing funding for his border wall as well as proposals to enact deep cuts in legal immigration levels.

President Trump said on Aug. 20 that the Department of Homeland Security needs $5 billion more next year to continue construction of the border wall. (Reuters)

“Obviously, the president views immigration as a wedge issue that plays to his advantage,” said John Sandweg, who served as acting ICE director in the Obama administration.

Sandweg acknowledged that Trump’s event could help boost spirits at ICE, which traditionally has reported low morale among rank-and-file agents. But he cautioned that thrusting an agency with 20,000 employees into the political spotlight could make it harder for ICE to be effective. A growing number of “sanctuary cities” have limited cooperation with federal immigration operations.

“There are lots of folks at ICE and CBP that deserve praise, but this is all designed to be political,” Sandweg said. “In the long run it hurts, because it further politicizes the issue and the agency itself.”

Congressional Democrats predicted that immigration will be a losing issue for Trump, who faced international backlash over his administration’s short-lived policy to separate immigrant families at the border this year.

“That’s bad for Republicans,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said. On the question of ICE, Menendez said the focus of Democrats is on “getting the policy of the president changed because that’s always going to be the irritant, the problem here.”

The crowd at the White House greeted Trump, Vice President Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen with standing ovations. Ahead of the president’s remarks, a group of state and local officials who share hard-line immigration views, including Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) and the attorney general of Alabama, Steve Marshall, participated in a panel discussion.

Perdue said calls to abolish ICE are “downright unpatriotic and treasonous.”

“Can I just say amen to what the senator said?” Marshall added.

ICE is a relatively new federal agency. It was formed as part of a bureaucratic reshuffling when Congress created the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

ICE and, to a lesser extent, the CBP have been the targets of fierce criticism for years from immigrant rights groups.

The complaints have intensified under the Trump administration since the president signed an executive action in his first week in office to broaden the scope of ICE’s enforcement efforts after President Barack Obama had focused operations on criminals and terrorists.

Arrests of immigrants without criminal records have spiked under Trump, although deportations are still lagging behind the peak rates of Obama’s tenure.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old who upset Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.) in a primary election in June, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio are among the Democrats who have proposed abolishing the agency. Other Democrats have resisted that message, calling it simplistic and extreme and suggesting that reforming the agency would be more prudent.

As he has done consistently, Trump used his remarks Monday to cast undocumented immigrants as dangerous, even though studies have shown that they commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans.

The president hailed Operation Matador, a federal initiative targeting the transnational MS-13 gang on Long Island and in other New York jurisdictions, and he honored the families of four border officers killed on duty between 2008 and 2017.

“What you hear in newspapers and on the news is nothing compared to what it really is,” Trump said.

In late June, a senior Trump administration official said the Democrats were on “a political suicide march” over ICE and vowed that the president would aggressively engage in the debate.

Trump has embraced ICE in ways past presidents have not.

Thomas Homan, who served as acting ICE director until resigning in the spring, flew with the president on Air Force One last year to join him at an event on Long Island focused on gang violence. Homan also attended the White House event on Monday.

The agency has continued to make headlines over sensational cases that have been highlighted by immigrant rights groups as examples of abuses of power.

Last week, the agency arrested a Los Angeles man who was driving with his pregnant wife to the hospital for the birth, leading him away in handcuffs.

The case drew national attention after the wife described her ordeal over the weekend. An ICE spokeswoman said Saturday that the man, Joel Arrona-Lara, is a Mexican national wanted on homicide charges in Mexico. The agency said the man is in custody pending removal proceedings.

Sandweg said current and former ICE officials are generally appreciative of Trump’s support.

“They rolled out the red carpet for ICE, and there is something to be said for morale,” he said. “But you’re doing it in a way that politicizes it. It’s going to take years of work to reform ICE’s reputation. They could be tarnished forever as a tool of the far right.”