It was supposed to be a White House salute to the heroism of immigration agents who put their lives on the line to protect Americans. But on Monday, President Trump appeared to have something else on his mind: the ethnicity of one of the men he was honoring.
“Speaks perfect English,” Mr. Trump blurted out as he encouraged Adrian Anzaldua, a Hispanic-American Border Patrol agent and dog handler from Texas, to join him onstage in the East Room. Mr. Anzaldua recently arrested a smuggler in Laredo who had tried to bring 78 people into the United States illegally inside a truck trailer.
“Come here. I want to ask you about that — 78 lives,” Mr. Trump said, putting Mr. Anzaldua on the spot. “You saved 78 people. So how did you feel, that there were people in that trailer?”
If Mr. Anzaldua was offended, he did not show it. He smiled and strode to the lectern, then offered a brief account of how he received an alert about the truck, “ran the dog” to search it, then opened the latch to reveal “a lot of subjects.”
“Fantastic job — what a good job he did,” Mr. Trump said, adding wryly, “Tomorrow he will be announcing that he’s running for office.”
The episode was the latest example of the president making a racially tinged remark in public, this time during an event devised to spotlight his tough immigration agenda. It came only days after a former aide, Omarosa Manigault Newman, claimed in a tell-all book that Mr. Trump had been caught on tape using a racial slur to refer to African-Americans, a charge that he has denied but that his press secretary did not flatly rule out.
Hector Garza, a colleague of Mr. Anzaldua’s who is also the vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, which endorsed Mr. Trump during the 2016 election, said he was proud of his friend and did not see anything wrong with the president’s remark about his language skills. Mr. Garza said Mr. Anzaldua had a stellar record — including the “Top Dog” award for narcotics apprehensions.
“I didn’t think anything of it,” said Mr. Garza, who said he had met with Mr. Trump numerous times and who, like Mr. Anzaldua, is Hispanic. “What ends up happening is that President Trump feels very comfortable with our agents, and our agents support President Trump, and I think this was him speaking comfortably with one of our agents. I didn’t see anything wrong with it.”
Mr. Anzaldua did not respond to telephone and email messages seeking comment. Representatives for the White House and Customs and Border Protection did not respond to requests for comment.
The stated purpose of Monday’s ceremony was to honor immigration officers and agents, but Mr. Trump turned it into a political attack on Democrats and argued that a Democratic takeover of Congress would usher in chaos and crime. He said those who have called to “Abolish ICE” are “open borders extremists.”
In a speech in which he falsely claimed that his border wall was being built and alluded to unspecified records he said his administration had shattered on immigration enforcement, Mr. Trump lavishly praised employees of Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement as “incredibly brave patriots.”
The president portrayed Democrats and progressives who have criticized ICE’s tactics as weak on crime and unappreciative of the sacrifices that law enforcement officials make to police the nation’s borders and remove those found to be violating the law.
“You’re incredible people; you do an unbelievable job,” Mr. Trump told uniformed agents, sheriffs and officials from around the country. “You’re not appreciated enough, but I’ll tell you what — 99 percent, we get it, we really get it. We love you. We’ll always be with you. We’ll never let you down.”
Mr. Trump repeatedly referred to Customs and Border Protection — known by its initials, C.B.P. — as “C.B.C.”
“The wall is getting longer and taller and stronger each and every day,” Mr. Trump said, although none of the wall that he requested has been built, and Congress has barred spending any of the money it has allocated for border barriers on the prototypes the president has considered. “We’re building the wall, step by step, and it’s not easy because we have a little opposition called the Democrats. I guess they just don’t mind crime. They don’t mind crime. It’s pretty sad.”
Mr. Trump’s objective was to take aim at what has become a widespread talking point among lawmakers who oppose his immigration agenda, particularly the zero-tolerance policy that has led to the separation of migrant children from their parents. Those legislators have become increasingly vocal calling for an overhaul of ICE, the agency charged with deporting immigrants facing removal.
Democrats who support eliminating and reconstituting the agency pushed back hard on Monday, accusing Mr. Trump of willfully exaggerating their views to score “cheap political points.”
“It is purely politics and theater,” said Representative Adriano Espaillat, a New York Democrat who has been a sponsor of legislation to disband ICE and impanel a commission to rethink how a successor agency should work. “He is trying to paint people who want a fair and practical immigration agency as the bad guys.”
The event reflected Mr. Trump’s effort to paint opponents of his immigration agenda as unpatriotic and dangerous, a strategy he views as a political winner in November for Republicans seeking to retain control of Congress.
Some Republicans regard the strategy as risky given the widespread opposition to some of the Trump administration’s more extreme moves. But even among Republicans squeamish about discussing the details of Mr. Trump’s immigration agenda, there is widespread opposition to the idea of eliminating ICE, and it is regarded as safer ground for a political attack.
Some Democratic Party leaders and rank-and-file lawmakers have questioned the wisdom of the movement to abolish ICE. They argue that focusing attention on eliminating a law enforcement agency takes pressure off the president and could ultimately prove self-defeating.
Leading advocates of eliminating the agency say they are not interested in changing immigration law or opening the nation’s borders — though some liberals do support those goals. Rather, they argue that ICE’s reputation has become so badly tarnished by the family separation crisis and Mr. Trump’s policies that only a drastic reorganization can correct its course.
“We all agree on one thing, and that is that ICE has become a runaway train and that it is not implementing or enforcing the law in a humane way or in the tradition that characterizes America,” Mr. Espaillat said.
He and other House Democrats favor creating two new agencies to replace ICE as it is currently constituted: one that would aggressively police acts like human and drug trafficking and illegal gang violence, and another that could deal more narrowly with asylum seekers and other immigrants inside the country.