WASHINGTON (AP) -- Vice President Mike Pence on Friday accused Democrats of making opposition to the federal immigration agency central to their party, calling for an end to "spurious attacks" on U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In an address at ICE headquarters infused with electoral politics, Pence noted that some prominent Democrats had called for the abolition of the agency charged with detaining and deporting migrants entering the country illegally. He said President Donald Trump would fully support immigration enforcement agents and warned that the abolition of ICE would lead to more illegal immigration, human trafficking, violent crime and the proliferation of drugs and "vicious gangs."
"It isn't just the expression of the radical left that has been speaking out against ICE. The truth is that opposition of ICE has moved to the center of the Democratic Party itself," Pence said in a speech to ICE employees. "Just when you thought the Democrats couldn't move farther to the left, leading members of the Democratic Party, including candidates for higher office, are actually openly advocating the abolition of ICE."
"The American people have the right to their opinions, but these spurious attacks on ICE by our political leaders must stop," Pence said.
The dispute over the federal agency has emerged as a political fault line after the Trump administration began separating migrant children from their parents after they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, leading to nationwide protests last weekend. Trump has made border security a focus of his message as he aims to prevent a Democratic takeover of Congress in the November midterm elections.
Pence made no mention of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy or the caring for unaccompanied children, who are overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services. As the vice president was greeting ICE employees after the speech, he did not respond to a shouted question from a reporter asking if separating children "was a Christian thing to do."
ICE has come under fire from Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, all of whom were named by Pence as seeking the abolition of the agency. The three Democrats are among a large field of potential 2020 challengers to Trump.
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.
Gillibrand has said ICE is not "working as intended" and pushed for separating the criminal justice aspect of the agency from immigration issues. Responding to Pence's speech, she tweeted that immigration "is a strength of America. Our country needs a new agency that works, and it needs bipartisan immigration reform."
Warren has called Trump's immigration policies "immoral" and said the U.S. needs to rebuild its immigration system "from top to bottom, starting by replacing ICE with something that reflects our values," while de Blasio has said ICE's time "has come and gone."
In his remarks, Pence also referred to a "leading candidate" for New York governor who had "appallingly called this agency a 'terrorist organization.'"
Cynthia Nixon, an actress and liberal activist challenging New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the state's Democratic primary, tweeted that she could "think of no better description than to call ICE a terrorist organization, and I will wear any criticism from @mike_pence as a badge of honor."