President Trump brandished two of his favorite political weapons at the White House on Monday: a phalanx of uniformed law enforcement officers by his side, and an angry denunciation of Democrats as a party of lawlessness and open borders.
Unabashedly politicizing the federal agency established in 2003, the president aligned himself with rank-and-file Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers he invited to the White House and repeatedly lionized as "brave heroes," while battering Democrats as "extremists" who want to "abolish America's borders."
"They have no courage," Trump said. "They have no guts. They just have big, loud mouths."
Trump took special aim at Democrats who have called for abolishing ICE, as some on the party's left wing have done. The president called it a "grave betrayal of these law enforcement officers and the noble sacrifices they make to uphold our laws, secure our borders and protect our safety."
Determined to head off a Democratic takeover of the House, Trump gave no quarter in the polarizing battle over immigration, even emphasizing the controversial enforcement crackdown that resulted in more than 2,600 migrant children being taken from their families on the Southwest border this spring and placed in shelters.
That harsh policy led to a national outcry and signs of a political debacle for the White House, forcing Trump to back down in June. U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw, who had ordered the administration to reunite the families, criticized the government last month for its lack of preparation and coordination. More than 400 parents were deported without their children.
Trump sought to regain the political upper hand Monday with an event in the East Room saluting several dozen officers from ICE, which arrests and deports people in the country illegally, and agents from Customs and Border Protection, which is responsible for guarding the border (although he repeatedly referred to "CBC," not "CBP," in his comments).
The president credited them with "liberating towns" from MS-13 gangs but reserved his harshest rhetoric for Democrats, who he accused of "shameful attacks on our great law enforcement."
"Any politician who puts criminal aliens before American citizens should find a new line of work," Trump said, drawing applause.
Democrats have used Trump's immigration crackdown — and the symbolism surrounding an agency that has come under fire for workplace raids and widespread reports of sexual and physical abuse in ICE detention facilities — to build enthusiasm among core supporters and activists.
But establishment Democrats worry that calls to abolish ICE, which has more than 20,000 employees, could backfire in November.
Those concerns grew after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat a party leader in a Democratic primary House race in New York, making her an instant celebrity. Since she had campaigned on abolishing ICE, the party's liberal base has pushed others to embrace it.
Two leading potential presidential contenders — Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — have joined the cause, a sign that the party is being tugged to the left as it considers how to confront Trump in 2020.
While the movement has some supporters in Congress, many Democrats have stayed away, choosing to focus on ICE's documented abuses and Trump's rhetoric and policies rather than taking on a challenge that has low support in polls.
Some who support abolishing ICE concede it may not happen but hope to push the center of the immigration debate further to the left, much as conservatives have pulled their party to the right by staking out extreme positions.
Advocates of eliminating ICE said they do not seek to end enforcement of immigration laws. But they say that ICE has twisted its mission by focusing on deportation of families at the expense of preventing crime and terrorism.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California has tried to split the issue, calling for "fundamentally reforming ICE's mission," while stopping short of endorsing an end to the agency.
Customs and Border Protection, not ICE, is tasked with patrolling the border, but many people conflate their roles.
"When you say 'abolish ICE,' what the rest of the population gets is that you want to leave the borders unguarded," said Jose Dante Parra, a Miami-based political consultant who served as the point person for Latino outreach for former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.
Parra, who works with immigration advocacy groups, supports the goal of overhauling ICE, arguing that it focuses on "mothers dropping off their kids at school who then go to clean somebody's house," rather than harder targets like terrorism rings and drug traffickers.
Mary Small, policy director for Detention Watch Network, an immigration advocacy group in Washington, called Trump's focus on ICE "propaganda that's really intended to stoke people's fears" because of the public outcry to his immigration crackdown.
"People are having a visceral reaction to seeing this administration's enforcement of these policies," Small said. "The perception of ICE agents has already shifted. So the president holding up these ICE agents as heroes — it's a response to the fact that our stories are breaking through."
Trump and many Republicans are eager to talk about abolishing ICE. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin recently said it showed that Democrats had "really jumped the shark on the left."
More than half of voters — 54% — surveyed in a July poll by Politico/Morning Consult opposed eliminating ICE, while only 25% want to abolish the agency.
"From a political standpoint this is a gift from the Democrats," said Matt Schlapp, a Trump ally and chairman of the American Conservative Union. "It shows their heart, which is one of radicalism."
Schlapp, whose wife, Mercedes, works in the White House communications office and moderated a panel at Monday's event, links Trump's embrace of ICE and Border Patrol agents to his other law-and-order rhetoric, including his criticism of National Football League players who have protested police brutality during the national anthem and Trump's embrace of the Blue Lives Matter movement.
During her panel ahead of the president's remarks, Mercedes Schlapp asked several law enforcement agents and lawmakers to react specifically to calls to "abolish" ICE.
They responded with predictable umbrage, with Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) calling such a proposal "unconscionable" and "unpatriotic."
"That's like saying I want to get rid of the Marines," he said.
4:30 p.m.: The story was updated with details from the White House event.