WASHINGTON - Amid a wave of backlash against of the agency, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on Friday visited the headquarters of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, echoing President Donald Trump's praise and proclaiming the administration's full support of the agency.
"Just this week, President Trump called the men and women of ICE 'incredible people,'" and Pence concurred. "And I know that to be true, incredible patriots."
ICE was established in 2003, under the then-new U.S. Department of Homeland Security. During the administration of President Barack Obama, ICE — particularly its Enforcement and Removal Operations department, which is charged with detaining and deporting illegal immigrants inside the U.S. — was primarily concerned with the removal of illegal immigrants, who already had committed "serious crimes," according to The New York Times.
Yet Trump, an immigration hardliner, has expanded the agency's scope, authorizing them to go after anyone who is in the country without the proper documentation — therefore illegally — regardless of criminal record.
Several leading Democrats, including U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, have in recent weeks called for the abolition of ICE. Both Warren and Gillibrand are thought of as potential candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 2020 election.
"The President's deeply immoral actions have made it obvious that we need to rebuild our immigration system from top to bottom, starting by replacing ICE with something that reflects our values," Warren wrote in a Facebook post Saturday.
Gillibrand called the agency a "deportation force."
On Friday, Pence decried these claims, repeatedly calling the agency's employees "heroes."
"Let me be clear on this point, the American people have a right to their opinions, but these spurious attacks on ICE by our political leaders must stop," Pence said.
?In several major U.S. cities this past week, "Occupy ICE" protests have sprung up, the protesters also calling for the agency's abolition. In Portland, protesters succeeded in shutting down the city's ICE office for over a week.
In June, a group of 19 investigators within ICE called for the agency to be dissolved, writing the agency has "been perceived as targeting undocumented aliens, instead of the transnational criminal organizations that facilitate cross border crimes impacting our communities and national security." The group wanted the agency's responsibilities to be separated into multiple agencies.
Pence assured the agency's employees that the Trump administration "would never abolish ICE," citing the organization's efforts in curbing gang crime within the country, particularly from MS-13.
Trump had made similar claims before, tweeting Saturday that he had "watched ICE liberate towns from the grasp of MS-13," not appearing to cite any evidence.
And on Monday, after Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) called for the reformation of the agency, the official White House Twitter asked the senator, "Why are you supporting the animals of MS-13?"
The Trump administration has been marked by its zero-tolerance policies toward immigration. Earlier this year, news broke that such policies had led to more than 2,600 children being separated from their families after being detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, sparking wide condemnations.
While Trump signed an executive order in late June rescinding that policy, the White House has yet to provide any details on how the already-separated children will be reunited with their families.