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Trump accused of using migrants as ‘political pawns’ after delaying raids

Jon Swaine in New York and Vivian Ho in San Francisco

Donald Trump was accused of using fearful migrants as “political pawns”, after postponing planned weekend raids and mass deportations of people in the US illegally.

Related: 'Death by a thousand cuts': Trump raid delay prolongs migrants' agony

The president granted a two-week reprieve to up to 2,000 families who were due to be targeted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) agents, following a request from Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives.

But Trump said in a tweet on Sunday the raids would go ahead later this month if Democrats did not allow him to tighten laws to make it more difficult for people to claim asylum in the US.

“Probably won’t happen, but worth a try,” Trump said. “Two weeks and big Deportation begins!”

While activists expressed relief at the passing of immediate danger, many condemned Trump’s casual handling of a decision that could lead to migrant parents being taken from children born in the US.

“This is all a game to him while people live in deep fear,” said Vanita Gupta, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Human beings as political pawns.”

The raids were expected on Sunday in major cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. Some city authorities had said they would not cooperate. Mark Morgan, acting director of Ice, said the agency would target families that had already received a removal order from an immigration court.

Pelosi said in a tweet that while the delay was welcomed, “time is needed for comprehensive immigration reform”.

Trump’s climbdown followed threats from Democrats in Congress to withhold $4.5bn in funding for law enforcement and humanitarian aid at the US-Mexican border, where there has been a surge in migrant arrivals. Many are fleeing violence in Central America.

The president, whose 2016 campaign was built around the demonisation of migrants and a promise to build a wall along the entire southern border, has been enraged by the increase in illegal border crossings, which reached a 13-year high of more than 144,000 last month.

Trump has repeatedly railed against US immigration laws for preventing him from simply blocking unwanted people and from immediately deporting people found to be in the US without authorisation.

He frequently describes longstanding law allowing migrants to declare they are refugees and attempt to claim asylum as a “loophole” needing to be closed. The United Nations protocol on refugees, to which the US was already a signatory, was incorporated into American law by the US Refugee Act of 1980.

Republican allies of Trump in Congress have proposed an overhaul of immigration law that would force migrants to claim asylum from their own country or Mexico, a plan widely derided by human rights groups and immigrant activists.

Horrifying stories have meanwhile emerged from camps near the border packed with migrants, including young children. A Trump administration lawyer argued in court last week that detained children did not require soap or toothbrushes to be held in “safe and sanitary” conditions, and could be made to sleep on cold concrete floors.

Related: US must spend $4.5bn to prevent more child migrant deaths at border, warns CBP

Asked about the conditions facing migrant children, during an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press that was broadcast on Sunday, Trump said: “We’re doing a fantastic job under the circumstances.” That claim was echoed by Vice-President Mike Pence, in interviews with CNN and CBS.

The debate over how to deal with an influx of largely Hispanic migrants has unfolded against a backdrop of racial panic among some devotees of Trump, whose “base” of support skews towards older white Americans in rural areas.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a Republican, came under fire for posting a tweet on Saturday linking to a news article on how his state “gained almost nine Hispanic residents for every additional white resident last year”.

Activists and community leaders said over the weekend Trump’s delay of the Ice raids put them in an all-too-familiar position.

“He’s done this before,” Father Richard Smith, a San Francisco clergy leader and immigration activist, told the Guardian. “Part of his strategy clearly is to incite fear among a vulnerable community that is already in fear. It’s death by a thousand cuts.”