Donald Trump formally launched his 2020 re-election campaign in Florida where he said his victory three years ago was a “defining moment in American history” and vowed to maintain his America First policy
“Exactly four years ago this week I announced my campaign for the [office of] president . . . It turned out to be a great political movement,” Mr Trump said. “It’s a movement, made up of hard-working patriots who love their country, love their flag, love their children. I do believe that a nation must care for its own citizens first.”
Mr Trump has held dozens of political rallies since he assumed office in January 2017. But the Tuesday evening event in Florida, a key swing state, marked the formal start of a re-election campaign that will see him battle against one of the 23 Democrats vying to run against him next year.
Underscoring the power of incumbency, Trump fans filled the 20,000-seat arena in Orlando where people wielded placards saying “Four More Years”.
Ahead of the rally, Mr Trump sparked more controversy about immigration by saying that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency would next week conduct raids aimed at finding and deporting millions of people who live in the US without the proper documentation.
“Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States. They will be removed as fast as they come in,” Mr Trump tweeted.
The US has continued to see a sharp uptick of border apprehensions in recent months, although there have been signs of a slowdown in recent weeks. In May the US apprehended over 144,000 individuals — the highest such monthly figure in more than a decade.
During the 2016 campaign, Mr Trump stoked fears by warning about rapists and murderers entering the US from Mexico, and vowed to build a wall on the border. He adopted a similar approach before the 2018 midterm elections by warning voters that a “caravan” of people from Central America was winding its way through Mexico in the hope of reaching the US.
His renewed focus on immigration sets the stage for a presidential race where Mr Trump stresses the need to reduce the number of illegal immigrants in the US, while the Democrats vying to win their party’s presidential nomination stress the need to take a more humane approach.
Over the past few months Mr Trump has focused his presidential political attacks on Joe Biden, the former vice-president who is leading the polls in the Democratic primary. Many experts believe that Mr Biden is still benefiting from strong name recognition that has given him an early boost in the race.
According to an average of recent polls compiled by Real Clear Politics, Mr Biden leads the Democratic primary race with 32 per cent, followed by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders on 15 per cent.
Mr Sanders has fallen as Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren has risen to 12 per cent, and in some polls overtaken him. The top three are followed by South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, with 7 per cent, California senator Kamala Harris also with 7 per cent, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke with 4 per cent and New Jersey senator Cory Booker with 2 per cent.
A slew of recent polls have shown several of the Democrats beating Mr Trump in a head-to-head race, but many experts say that such surveys are largely pointless coming just under a year and a half before the election.
Mr Trump has faced harsh criticism for a policy that has seen many children separated from their parents after crossing into the US illegally. Many of the Democratic presidential contenders were quick to lash out at Mr Trump’s deportation threat, accusing him of inciting fear for political purposes.
“Threatening mass deportations is President Trump’s latest attempt to instil fear and hate in our immigrant communities for his own political gain,” Mr Booker said.
Mr O’Rourke tweeted that “militarising and raiding our communities makes us less, not more, safe”. Mrs Harris said mass deportations were cruel. “As this president rips more families apart, let’s remember that history has already shown us what happens when governments begin rounding people up by ethnic group. This would be a shameful stain on our country,” she said.
It was not clear where the raids would take place. ICE typically does not announce raids ahead of time, and was reportedly blindsided by the announcement. Asked by reporters why his officials were unaware of his plan, Mr Trump said: “They know, they know. They’re going to start next week.”
The president’s statement came a week after his team reached an agreement with Mexico that would see the country take greater steps to stem the flow of Central American migrants trying to enter the US.
After castigating Mexico in recent weeks, Mr Trump on Tuesday praised the country saying it was doing a “very good job of stopping people long before they get to our southern border”. The deal reached last week gives Mexico 45 days to stem the flow of migrants.
A senior Mexican official on Monday said data for recent weeks showed the number of people trying to cross the border into the US had fallen from roughly 4,500 a day to about 2,600. The official welcomed the progress, but stressed that Mexico was under no illusion that the problem was solved and that the government knew Mr Trump could use the immigration issue as a rallying call during the 2020 campaign.
“We are aware that what we agreed last week is not the end of the discussion, but maybe the beginning of a set of discussions on this,” said the official when asked whether Mexico was concerned about Mr Trump using the issue for political purposes.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi