BETHPAGE, NY — It was billed by the White House as a roundtable discussion on immigration, but recent comments by President Donald Trump made the event here charged with controversy and protest. Adding to the tension was the presence of the Justice Department official responsible for the probe into the possible influence of Russia into the Trump presidential campaign.
Beginning late Wednesday morning, hours before President Trump arrived, demonstrators both for and against him raised their voices in a designated protest zone about a quarter mile from the venue here where the event was being held.
The main topic of the protests involved comments the president had made exactly a week earlier at a forum in California. In talking about people who've been deported from the U.S., Pres. Trump said, "You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people, these are animals."
The response near the venue at the Morelli Center was strong.
"When Trump is referring to our kids as animals, I have a serious problem with that," Rahsmia Zatar, the executive director of the service organization Carecen, said. " We cannot ignore the layers, the complexities of this problem."
Patricia Dwyer, a Trump supporter, also came out to express both her support and opinion.
"Only animals viciously attack other people," she told PIX11 News.
Since making the comment last Wednesday, Pres. Trump has said he was referring to arrested MS-13 gang members, and their leaders. On Long Island, the gang is either suspected of, or proven to be behind, more than 30 murders in the last five years.
The parents of two of MS-13's victims, best friends Kayla Cuevas, 16, and Nisa Mickens, 15, sat on either side of the president at the forum.
"I called them animals the other day. I was met with rebuke. I was right," Trump said, to loud applause.
Evelyn Rodriguez, mother of Kayla Cuevas, agreed with him.
"You said they are animals. And you're right," she said. "They are."
Robert Mickens, father of Nisa, referred to the people demonstrating outside.
"The protesters aren't seeing the bigger picture," he said. "They're not seeing what we [families are] going through."
However, standing with protesters against the president outside of the venue were the mother and stepfather of Miguel Garcia-Moran, whose death in 2016 is suspected of being MS-13 related.
"When [the president] says 'animals' like that," Abraham Chaparro, Garcia-Moran's stepfather said, it's inaccurate.
"Hispanic people got good people," said Chaparro.
He went on to say that he did not want labels, but instead wants action taken for young people.
"Get into work, or sport or music, whatever they want to do," he said.
President Trump said at the forum that the problem is in Washington, where, he said, tougher immigration laws are needed.
"The Democrats are starting to come around," he said.
However, the president did not invite any Democratic federal level elected officials to speak at the roundtable. A glaring omission was Congressman Tom Suozzi, who represents the district where the forum was held.
A glaring inclusion at the forum was Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general of the United States. As the second highest official at the Department of Justice, he oversees the probe that for the last year has looked into Russian influence in the Trump campaign.
On numerous occasions, the president has called for Rosenstein's resignation. On Wednesday afternoon, however, the two were face to face at the roundtable.
Rosenstein praised the president's leadership, as well as activity of the Justice Department.
"Although we're doing all we can, there's still aliens getting in" to the U.S. under various provisions of law, he said.
"We're hoping to get help from Congress to close this loophole," Rosenstein added. President Trump agreed, but singled out the Democrats in Congress for standing in the way.