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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump sharply accused congressional Democrats of allowing open borders and crime to fester, using a White House event on Monday to stoke a fall campaign fight over immigration and the U.S. southern border.
Predicting that Republicans would do "very well in the midterms," Trump said at an event paying tribute to federal immigration officials that immigration would be a potent issue separating the two parties in the November elections.
"I think we're going to have much more of a red wave than what you're going to see as a phony blue wave," Trump said in the East Room. "Blue wave means crime, it means open borders. Not good."
The president honored employees of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, bringing agents to the podium to note their achievements in addressing unlawful border crossings and stemming the flow of illicit drugs.
During the event, he referred to the CBP as the "CBC," an abbreviation for the Congressional Black Caucus, a group that has been critical of his presidency. He also congratulated the work of border agent Adrian Anzaldua on a smuggling bust in Laredo, Texas, inviting him to make some impromptu remarks. Trump said, "You're not nervous — speaks perfect English."
The federal agencies overseeing the border and the nation's immigration system have been thrust into a political debate over the Trump administration's separation of migrant children from their parents after they illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump's hard-line rhetoric underscored the White House's interest in making immigration a defining issue in the fall elections as Democrats seek to capture the 23 seats they need to retake the majority in the House and overcome the Republicans' narrow majority in the Senate.
Trump said "step by step" he was building his signature border wall — a staple of his 2016 campaign — but expressed unhappiness with congressional Democrats who have opposed his plan. The president complained of "a coalition of open borders extremists and to me that means crime, people that don't mind crime. They mind it when it happens to them, they don't mind it when they have to watch it on television."
Trump has assailed some Democratic lawmakers for seeking to abolish ICE. In a letter to state and local leaders before the event, Trump wrote that ICE workers had been subjected to a "nationwide campaign of smears, insults and attacks" by politicians "catering to the extreme elements in our society."
While some Democrats in the House and Senate have raised the prospect of eliminating ICE, no top Democrats in the House or Senate have called for such a move. Democrats have blasted Trump's immigration policies along the border, saying they wrongly separate families.
"More than 500 children remain separated from their families as a result of Trump's anti-immigrant agenda. Instead of addressing this humanitarian crisis that he himself created, Trump continues to ignore the lives he has destroyed and communities he has upended," said Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Adrienne Watson.
Trump has made border security a key part of his message as he tries to maintain Republican control of Congress. The president has told aides privately that he doesn't plan to pursue a government shutdown before the midterm elections in order to secure more money for his promised wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
But he tweeted during the summer that he doesn't care about "political ramifications," pointing to a government shutdown as a "very small price to pay for a safe and Prosperous America!"
Before the president arrived Monday, the White House held a panel discussion on immigration with several state and local officials, who pointed to the role that a secure border plays in the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking and questioned calls to abolish ICE.
Republican Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, who has worked closely with the administration on immigration legislation, said he struggled to see the point of eliminating the federal agency, likening it to someone saying, "I want to get rid of the Marines."
"I just think it's unconscionable, and frankly, I think it's downright unpatriotic and treasonous," Perdue said.