WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump said Thursday that he may pull the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency out of California, an idea so unlikely that some of his staunchest critics dismissed it as an empty taunt against the state over immigration policies.
Withdrawing ICE, partially or completely, runs counter to Trump's record of dramatically increasing deportation arrests and pledging to beef up the agency with an additional 10,000 employees. The administration has been threatening more — not less — immigration enforcement in California in response to a new state law that sharply limits cooperation with federal authorities.
The president's suggestion, however impractical, was his latest attention-grabbing statement to pressure so-called "sanctuary" jurisdictions, which the administration claims are a magnet for immigrants who commit crimes.
"Frankly, if I wanted to pull our people from California you would have a crime nest like you've never seen in California," he said at the White House during a meeting with state and local officials on school safety and gun violence. "All I'd have to do is say is, 'ICE and Border Patrol, let California alone,' you'd be inundated. You would see crime like nobody has ever seen crime in this country."
"If we ever pulled our ICE out, and we ever said, 'Hey, let California alone, let them figure it out for themselves,' in two months they'd be begging for us to come back. They would be begging. And you know what, I'm thinking about doing it," he continued.
Withdrawing ICE from the state with the largest number of people in the country illegally, two of its largest detention centers and thousands of investigators had never been floated or seriously considered.
ICE referred questions to the White House, where spokesman Raj Shah said the administration wanted California "to actually enforce immigration law rather than get in the way of it."
The National ICE Council, the union representing detention officers and an early supporter of Trump's presidential bid, didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Thomas Homan, ICE's acting director, has been saying for months that limits on cooperation in local jails would lead to a more active street presence of deportation officers.
"California better hold on tight," he told Fox News last month. "They're about to see a lot more special agents, a lot more deportation officers in the state of California. If the politicians in California don't want to protect their communities, then ICE will."
Last Friday, as ICE announced results of an operation in the Los Angeles area that included more than 200 arrests, Homan declared, "Fewer jail arrests mean more arrests on the street, and that also requires more resources, which is why we are forced to send additional resources to those areas to meet operational needs and officer safety."
Trump's comments were part of a broader swipe against heavily Democratic California, which gave Hillary Clinton a resounding victory in the 2016 presidential race. He said the state was "doing a lousy management job" and criticized it for high taxes.
Trump told the group that included Attorney General Jeff Sessions that his administration has targeted members of the violent MS-13 gang but has been "getting no help from the state of California."
The Justice Department has threatened to deny millions of dollars in federal grants to communities that refuse to share information with federal immigration authorities. Many cities have defied the threats, with lawsuits pending in Chicago, Philadelphia and California over whether the administration has overstepped its authority.
The administration stepped up criticism of California after Jan. 1, when a law took effect to largely prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies from detaining people at ICE's request unless they have been convicted of any of hundreds of crimes outlined in a 2013 state law.
Although Trump's threat was met with amusement from some in the general public, lawmakers and activists immediately pushed back against the notion that crime rates would increase.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein responded within hours, pointing out that California is the world's sixth-largest economy and the largest farm state in the U.S.
"We're creating jobs and driving the nation's economy," Feinstein said in a statement. "At the same time, the state's murder rates keep falling and crime is at a historic low."
"The president's attacks are not only mean-spirited, they're patently false," she said.
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf had sharp words for the president, telling him to do his job and stop dividing Americans.
"Just more ugly myths from the mouth of the bull in chief. Once again, the President is putting out ugly lies about California and our people," said Schaaf.
Schaaf, who has been openly critical of President Trump in the past, did not hold back in her response to his comments.
"Trump's level of vindictiveness knows no bounds! He's threatening to pull law enforcement out of California? A couple weeks ago, he threatened to arrest elected officials like myself just for being the heads of sanctuary cities. That is not America. That is not democracy," said Schaaf.
She went on to defend those who have come to the U.S. from other countries with numbers.
"Statistically, data is clear that immigrants per capita commit fewer crimes than U.S. citizens, argued Schaaf. This idea that an immigration policy that is misguided and so horrific is making America safer is ridiculous.
Responding to a part of the president's comments in which he mentioned Sanctuary City jurisdictions like San Francisco, Mayor Mark Farrell said Trump is sorely mistaken if he thinks such threats will coerce Californians into betraying the trust of the immigrant community.
"We are a Sanctuary City because we know our city is safer when law-abiding residents, regardless of immigration status, are active members of our community," Farrell said in a statement.
"The President's declaration to abdicate the federal government's obligation is more of the same from this administration, once again choosing politics over public safety," he said.
Some of ICE's strongest critics in California dismissed the idea.
"His erratic comments reflect an obsession with criminalizing immigrants and shows a deep lack of knowledge of California and immigration laws," said the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights, an advocacy group in Los Angeles.
State Sen. Kevin de Leon, a Los Angeles Democrat who authored the new law, said, "The president's plan sounds perfectly fine but we know that will never happen and we'll work with ICE to remove actual dangerous criminals from our neighborhoods."
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a Democrat and frequent Trump critic, didn't directly address the president's comments. He issued a brief statement saying the state works with federal law enforcement daily and its efforts are geared toward stopping drug dealers, sex traffickers and other public safety threats.
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