WASHINGTON (AP) — While railing against California for its so-called sanctuary immigration policies, President Donald Trump referred to some people who cross the border illegally as "animals" — drawing a sharp rebuke from Democratic leaders for the harsh rhetoric.
Trump's remark at a meeting with local leaders was in response to a comment about MS-13 gang members.
"We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in -- and we're stopping a lot of them," Trump said during the immigration roundtable after Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims complained about state restrictions that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities. "You wouldn't believe how bad these people are. These aren't people. These are animals."
Trump has repeatedly referred to members of the violent street gang as "animals" in speeches, rallies and at White House events. He has also used the term to describe terrorists and school shooters.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., responded on Twitter to the president, saying, "When all of our great-great-grandparents came to America they weren't 'animals,' and these people aren't either."
And House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi said, "Every day that you think you've seen it all, along comes another manifestation of why their policies are so inhumane."
But White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the president's comments, saying he was "was very clearly referring" to MS-13 gang members, and arguing the word "animals" didn't go far enough.
"This is one of the most vicious and deadly gangs that operates by the motto of, 'Rape, control and kill,'" she said, adding that, "If the media and liberals want to defend MS-13, they're more than welcome to. Frankly, I don't think the term that the president used was strong enough."
Trump was joined at the Wednesday White House meeting by mayors, sheriffs and other local leaders from California who oppose the state's immigration policies and who applauded his administration's hard-line efforts.
"This is your Republican resistance right here against what they're doing in California," said Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, coopting a term used by Democrats opposed to Trump's presidency. She, like others, said the president and his policies were far more popular in the state than people realize.
They were criticizing legislation Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law last year that bars police from asking people about their immigration status or helping federal agents with immigration enforcement. Jail officials can transfer inmates to federal immigration authorities if they have been convicted of one of about 800 crimes, mostly felonies, but not for minor offenses.
Brown insists the legislation, which took effect Jan. 1, doesn't prevent federal immigration officials from doing their jobs. But the Trump administration has sued to reverse it, calling the policies unconstitutional and dangerous. Some counties, including San Diego and Orange, have voted to support the lawsuit or have passed their own anti-sanctuary resolutions.
Republicans see backlash to the law as a potentially galvanizing issue during the midterm elections, especially with Trump's anti-immigrant base. And Trump has held numerous events in recent months during which he's drawn attention to California's policies.
During the session, Trump thanked the officials, saying they had "bravely resisted California's deadly and unconstitutional sanctuary state laws." He claimed those laws are forcing "the release of illegal immigrant criminals, drug dealers, gang members and violent predators into your communities" and providing "safe harbor to some of the most vicious and violent offenders on earth."
Brown responded on Twitter, writing that Trump "is lying on immigration, lying about crime and lying about the laws of CA."
The Democratic governor added: "Flying in a dozen Republican politicians to flatter him and praise his reckless policies changes nothing. We, the citizens of the fifth largest economy in the world, are not impressed."
The discussion came as top House Republicans worked to head off an attempt by party moderates to force roll calls on four immigration bills. Republican leaders privately warned GOP lawmakers Wednesday that such a drive could damage the party's prospects in the fall's congressional elections by dispiriting conservative voters, according to people at the closed-door meeting.
The House leaders fear the winning legislation would be a compromise bill backed solidly by Democrats but opposed by most Republicans, an outcome that could anger conservatives, according to Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., a leader of the effort to force the immigration votes.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., issued the warning, said a second person who was in the room and spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the private conversation.
Asked about his remarks, McCarthy said his objection to the procedure was that it would in effect "turn the floor over" to Democrats.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said the petition would be "a big mistake" that would "disunify our majority." He said the leaders were "working with the administration."
The moderates said later Wednesday that House leaders were trying to end the immigration standoff and that they could soon see a specific proposal on how to do that.
"We're willing to see what this looks like," said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., a leader of the lawmakers trying to force the House to address the issue. Conservatives had their own session with party leaders and also suggested there had been movement, but offered no specifics.
Many of the legislators demanding action face potentially competitive re-election races in congressional districts with large numbers of Hispanic, suburban or agriculture-industry voters with pro-immigration views.
Earlier this year, competing bills aimed at protecting young immigrants and toughening border security — including one backed by Trump — collapsed in the Senate. The measures never received House votes.
Associated Press writers Alan Fram in Washington, Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.