SAN DIEGO (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." Of MS-13, he said, "They actually have franchises going to Los Angeles."
Capt. Patricia Sandoval, a Los Angeles police spokeswoman, said MS-13 was "not one of the most active gangs in LA" and the city's police chief said in a statement Wednesday that they have "been able to shrink MS-13's sphere of influence in Los Angeles."
"While it would be foolish to minimize the lethal brutality of street gangs and in particular MS-13 here in Los Angeles, we have seen a steady decline in gang membership and gang crime in the city," said Chief Charlie Beck. "We have made our biggest impact, by arresting and incarcerating individuals who engage in violent crime and not the general deportation of the residents they victimize."
Nicole Nishida, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County sheriff's department — the nation's largest — said there are "no known MS-13 members or structures" within their territory, which spreads across nearly 4,000 square miles (10,360 sq. kilometers).
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.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democratic, said Trump's comments were mean-spirited.
"President Trump today renewed his attacks on California with more insults and threats. The president's obsession with our state is growing more outrageous by the day," she 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.
Thomas reported from Washington. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/@KThomasDC .
Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo in Los Angeles contributed to this report.