Certain migrants arriving in the US illegally are “animals”, not people, Donald Trump has said.
The US president blamed “weak laws” for allowing criminals and gangs to enter the country illegally, and criticised so-called sanctuary provisions during a meeting with conservative California politicians.
His remarks came after reports the White House was preparing to separate children of migrants from their parents and detain them in warehouses on military bases.
In a half-minute rant in front of news cameras, following discussion of the MS-13 gang, Mr Trump said: “We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in, we’re stopping a lot of them.
“We’re taking people out of the country, you wouldn’t believe how bad these people are.
“These aren’t people, these are animals. And we’re taking them out of the country at a level, at a rate, that’s never happened before.
“And because of the weak laws they come in fast, we get ‘em, we release ‘em, we get ‘em again, we bring ‘em out. It’s crazy.
“The dumbest laws – as I’ve said before – the dumbest laws on immigration in the world, so we’re gonna take care of it.”
According to the White House’s official transcript of the meeting, Mr Trump was speaking after Sheriff Margaret Mims decried California’s sanctuary laws, saying they left her unable to alert immigration officials to the presence of MS-13 gang members and other criminals.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “cannot use our databases to find the bad guys”, Ms Mims said.
“They cannot come in and talk to people in our jail, unless they reach a certain threshold. They can’t do all kinds of things that other law enforcement agencies can do. And it’s really put us in a very bad position.”
Earlier in the meeting, held in the White House’s Cabinet Room, Mr Trump had said the provisions gave “safe harbour to some of the most vicious and violent offenders on Earth, like MS-13 gang members”.
The notoriously vicious gang has been a frequent target of Mr Trump’s anger, and he has used it to provide evidence of the necessity of his tough immigration policies.
The president’s remarks provoked outrage among opponents. Eric Swalwell, a Democratic congressman from California, called on people who attended the meeting to “denounce” the president.
The Southern Poverty Law Centre anti-hate campaign group called the comments “unacceptable and dangerous”, adding: “President Trump warned law enforcement officers almost a year ago about the ‘animals’ they were up against. Today he used the exact same dehumanising language.”
Defending Mr Trump, his eldest son Donald Jr tweeted in response to one critic: “He was specifically talking about MS-13, and you know it. They are animals.”
In a speech last July the elder Trump said MS-13 had turned “beautiful quiet neighbourhoods into blood-stained killing fields”, and called its members ”animals” at that time.
The politicians at Wednesday’s meeting were responding to legislation signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown last year that bars police from asking people about their immigration status or helping federal agents with immigration enforcement.
Jails can hand over inmates to federal immigration authorities if they have been convicted of one of about 800 crimes, largely felonies, but not for minor offences.
Mr Brown has insisted the law does not stop ICE from doing its job, but the Trump administration has sued to reverse it, calling the policies unconstitutional and dangerous.
Some counties in California, including San Diego and Orange, have voted to support the lawsuit or passed their own anti-sanctuary resolutions.
The roundtable meeting, and Mr Trump’s rant, came a week after his administration announced it would seek the criminal prosecution of every person caught trying to enter the country illegally.
Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, said earlier this month: “If you cross the border unlawfully, even a first offence, we’re going to prosecute you.
“If you’re smuggling a child, we’re going to prosecute you, and that child will be separated from you, probably, as required by law. If you don’t want your child to be separated, then don’t bring them across the border illegally.”
On Wednesday it emerged that the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was planning to visit four military installations in Texas and Arkansas to assess whether they could be used to house migrant children separated from their families.
The bases would be used to hold under-18s. An government email notification characterised the visits as a preliminary assessment.
In a statement, HHS’s Administration for Children and Families said its programmes necessitated “routinely evaluating the needs and capacity of an existing network of approximately 100 shelters in 14 states”.
“Additional properties with existing infrastructure are routinely being identified and evaluated by federal agencies as potential locations for temporary sheltering,” it added.
During his meeting with Californian conservatives Mr Trump echoed Mr Sessions’ remarks, and blamed Democrats for passing laws mandating the breaking up of families at the border.
The administration is using protocols described in a 2008 law designed to combat child trafficking that gave special protections to central American children at the border.
While the bill was authored by Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein, it unanimously passed both houses of Congress and was signed by Republican President George W Bush as one of his last acts in office.
Additional reporting by agencies