WASHINGTON • US President Donald Trump last Saturday delayed plans for nationwide raids to deport families in the country illegally, but he threatened to unleash Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in two weeks if Democrats do not submit to changes in asylum law that they have long opposed.
The announcement, made on Twitter as Mr Trump was meeting his aides at Camp David, was his latest attempt to pressure his adversaries into making immigration changes. In May, he had threatened to levy tariffs on Mexico unless it did more to stop the flow of immigrants into the US.
Immigration agents had been planning to sweep into immigrant communities in 10 major cities, including Miami, Los Angeles, Baltimore and Chicago, starting from yesterday.
Officials last Friday said they had targeted about 2,000 families in a show of force intended to demonstrate their strict enforcement of immigration laws.
Children of immigrants, some of them born in the US, had faced the prospect of being forcibly separated from their parents.
Mr Mark Morgan, acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, announced this month that his agency would begin the raids at some point in the future.
But last Monday, Mr Trump revealed on Twitter that they would start the following week, claiming officials would deport millions of people, and sending panic through cities across the country.
The President's abrupt reversal last Saturday came as lawmakers were considering a measure to send US$4.5 billion (S$6.1 billion) in humanitarian aid to the border, money the Trump administration said is needed desperately to handle a huge influx of immigrants.
Some Democrats, including members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, had threatened to withhold their support for the funding package when it comes to a vote in the House this upcoming week, in protest against Mr Trump's immigration policies.
The spectre of high-profile immigration raids had risked imperilling its chances of passage.
The Senate has reached a bipartisan deal on a similar measure, although Democrats have conditioned their support on assurances that none of the money would go towards Mr Trump's threatened raids.
Democratic lawmakers and immigration activists had demanded in recent days that the raids be prevented, calling them a cruel attack on minority communities whose only crime was illegally entering the country.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Mr Trump last Friday evening to persuade him to cancel the raids, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
The next day, Ms Pelosi put out a strongly worded statement, calling the raids "heartless" and saying they would rip families apart and terrorise communities. She publicly urged Mr Trump to "stop this brutal action".
The President did that a few hours later, announcing that "at the request of Democrats, I have delayed the Illegal Immigration Removal Process (Deportation) for two weeks".
But he made clear he planned to use the threat of family deportations to extract concessions from Democratic lawmakers.
He said he had delayed the raids "to see if the Democrats and Republicans can get together and work out a solution to the asylum and loophole problems at the southern border".
"If not, deportations start," he tweeted.