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Trump to celebrate ‘heroes’ of ICE as political debate over federal agency intensifies ahead of midterms

President Donald Trump welcomes Customs and Border Patrol agent Adrian Anzaldua, right, on stage to speak during an event to salute U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Aug. 20, 2018. (Andrew Harnik / AP)
President Donald Trump welcomes Customs and Border Patrol agent Adrian Anzaldua, right, on stage to speak during an event to salute U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Aug. 20, 2018. (Andrew Harnik / AP)

President Donald Trump on Monday will offer public praise of federal immigration officers and tout them as “heroes” at a White House event aimed at drawing a sharp contrast with Democrats over the enforcement of border control laws.

An estimated 150 officers and agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection are expected to participate in the “Salute to the Heroes” program, which will feature a panel discussion among lawmakers and state representatives with hard-line immigration views. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga.; Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, and the attorney general of Alabama, Steve Marshall, are among them.

In a letter to state and local officials, Trump hailed the officers and agents as “courageous public servants” and said they have been “subjected to a nationwide campaign of smears, insults, and attacks by politicians shamelessly catering to the extreme elements in our society that desire lawlessness and anarchy.”

The event is 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 abolish the agency to paint his political rivals as weak on enforcement, which the White House believes will be a potent political message in the fall.

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

“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, noting that a growing number of 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.”

ICE, and to a lesser extent CBP, have been the targets of fierce criticism for years from immigrant rights groups, accused of acting recklessly, cruelly and, in some cases, unlawfully to round up and deport undocumented immigrants.

The complaints have intensified under the Trump administration after the president signed an executive action in his first week 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 has 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 of New York, in a primary election in June, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, 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 reforms to the agency would be more prudent.

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

“We’re protecting American workers, supporting American law enforcement – including ICE,” Trump said at a rally in Lewis Center, Ohio, this month. “We love ICE.”

The president’s remarks prompted the crowd to chant, “ICE! ICE! ICE!,” followed by “Build the wall!”

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 combating gang violence, including MS-13, a transnational organization with roots in Central America.

Homan also is expected to attend the White House event on Monday.

But 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 wife to the hospital to deliver a baby boy, leading him away in handcuffs.

The case drew national attention after the wife described her ordeal over the weekend. An ICE spokesperson said Saturday that the man, Joel Arrona-Lara is a Mexican national wanted in that country under a warrant issued for homicide charges. 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.”


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