WASHINGTON — Fifteen days before the 2018 midterm elections, as President Trump sought to motivate Republicans with dark warnings about caravans heading to the U.S. border, he gathered his Homeland Security secretary and White House staff to deliver a message: “extreme action” was needed to stop the migrants.
That afternoon, at a meeting with top leaders of the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection officials suggested deploying a microwave weapon — a “heat-ray” designed by the military to make people’s skin feel like it is burning when they get within range of its invisible beams.
Developed by the military as a crowd dispersal tool two decades ago, the Active Denial System had been largely abandoned amid doubts over its effectiveness and morality. Two former officials who attended the afternoon meeting at the Homeland Security Department on Oct. 22, 2018, said the suggestion that the device be installed at the border shocked attendees, even if it would have satisfied the president. Kirstjen Nielsen, then the secretary of Homeland Security told an aide after the meeting that she would not authorize the use of such a device, and it should never be brought up again in her presence, the officials said.
Alexei Woltornist, a spokesman for the Homeland Security Department, said Wednesday that “it was never considered.”
But the discussion in the fall of 2018 underscored how Mr. Trump’s obsession with shutting down immigration has driven policy considerations, including his suggestions of installing flesh-piercing spikes on the border wall, building a moat filled with snakes and alligators and shooting migrants in the legs.
The dark warnings of a looming invasion had little impact in 2018, when a Democratic wave swept Republicans from control of the House. The Republican convention on Tuesday night featured a small citizenship naturalization ceremony at the White House clearly designed to try to soften the president’s image as a heartless foe of immigrants.
But for his core supporters, Mr. Trump’s immigration agenda is again at the heart of his campaign, and the unrest roiling cities from Portland, Ore., to Kenosha, Wis., could give it more punch. The pitch: He has delivered on perhaps the central promise of his 2016 run, to effectively cut off America from foreigners who he said pose security and economic threats. Through hundreds of regulations, policy directives and structural changes, the president has profoundly reshaped the government’s vast immigration bureaucracy.
His campaign will also concentrate on making searing, and often false, attacks against former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., telling voters that the president’s rival wants to fling open the nation’s borders to criminals and disease-carrying immigrants who will take hard-working Americans’ jobs.
“The public health necessity and the economic necessity of controlling immigration has placed the view of the Democrat left even more radically outside the pale of mainstream American thought,” Stephen Miller, the architect of the president’s immigration policies, said in an interview this week.
Mr. Biden’s campaign said such false attacks will be as politically ineffective as they were in 2018, long before the coronavirus and economic recession.
“Doubling down on divisive poison says one thing to voters: that even after all his devastating failed leadership has cost us — and even though Joe Biden has been showing him the way for months — Donald Trump still has no strategy for overcoming the pandemic, the overwhelming priority for the American people,” said Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Mr. Biden’s presidential campaign.
Mr. Biden has not called for “open borders” or embraced getting rid of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as some on the Democratic left flank have sought. He has said he would roll back Mr. Trump’s immigration policies, promising to restore asylum rules, end separation of migrant families at the border, reverse limits on legal immigration and impose a 100-day moratorium on deportations.
But Mr. Biden and Democratic congressional candidates are bracing for what they expect will be a concerted focus on one of the most polarizing issues in American politics — made even more divisive by Mr. Trump’s embrace of ugly, xenophobic language about foreigners.
Some of Mr. Trump’s biggest immigration promises from 2016 have fallen short. No “big, beautiful wall” stretches the length of the southern border, paid for by Mexico. Instead, the president spent billions of dollars of taxpayer money to replace about 300 miles of existing barriers with a hulking wall built of steel slats.
Many of the president’s ideas — including the moat and the “heat ray” — were thwarted by his own officials. Other policy proposals have been blocked by federal judges who have ruled that they violated existing laws, administrative rules or the Constitution.
But even the president’s most fierce critics concede that on immigration, the president can rightly claim that he did much of what he said he would do.
“The Trump administration, unilaterally, without passing laws in Congress, has radically reshaped immigration in the United States,” said Omar Jadwat, the director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “They have effectively shut down the asylum system at the border. They’ve reintroduced religious, racial and national origin discrimination into our immigration system. These are real, radical shifts.”
Because of president’s policies, Central American migrants fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries now must wait, often for months, in squalid camps on the Mexico side of the border while the United States considers their requests for asylum. For decades, asylum seekers were allowed to remain in the United States while their cases were decided.
Mr. Trump derides that as “catch and release,” which he says allowed hundreds of thousands of migrants to fraudulently claim persecution as a means of entering the United States and then disappearing into the country illegally. He repeatedly said it was his top priority to end the practice.
Advocates say he has largely succeeded, aided in part by the coronavirus pandemic. The president has used emergency powers designed for public health crises to turn away all asylum seekers, effectively ending the role of the United States as a place of refuge for those fleeing their homes.
Those deeply-rooted changes are a “bell that can never be unrung,” one senior aide said.
Even before the pandemic, he had lowered the annual cap for refugees to a trickle, shutting the United States off from war-torn countries like Syria or Somalia.
“Refugees have been left separated from their families or in the United States they’ve been left without access to critical medical care, or have been left in places where their lives are in danger,” said Eleanor Acer, the senior director for refugee protection at Human Rights First. “And for refugees seeking asylum, the asylum system has been totally decimated. Refugees seeking asylum have been turned back to some of the most dangerous places in the world.”
And from the earliest days of his presidency, Mr. Trump has used national security concerns to justify a crackdown on immigration from around the globe, imposing a travel ban on several mostly-Muslim countries just days after taking office in January of 2017. A version of that travel ban remains in place, and served as the template for other travel bans put in place during the pandemic.
Processing of visa applications from many countries around the world had already slowed to a crawl before the health crisis as the administration aggressively implemented what the president called “extreme vetting” of people from countries deemed to harbor terrorists.
The administration has also moved aggressively to reduce the flow of legal immigrants who have for decades sought to live and work in the United States.
It has drafted new regulations aimed at making it harder for poor immigrants to qualify for entry into the United States, arguing that they would be a financial burden on the country. And it has aggressively sought to eliminate programs that allowed American companies to lure foreign workers to the United States for jobs.
Mr. Miller, in particular has argued that such programs put working class Americans at a competitive disadvantage — a potent campaign theme — though experts say that, overall, immigrants do not drive down wages or take jobs from American citizens.
Some conservatives say Mr. Trump has not gone far enough to stop immigrants from working in America.
“There are areas where this administration isn’t as hawkish as they should be,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which pushes for immigration restrictions. He said Mr. Trump has failed to push for a program that would let employers quickly determine if a worker is in the country illegally.
“Where the hell is E-verify?” he asked. He said the president has done little to end the H-2B visa program that allows companies to hire temporary workers from abroad for seasonal jobs. “The H-2B program shouldn’t exist. It is harmful, period.”
Still, David Lapan, who served briefly as the top spokesman at the Department of Homeland Security in 2017, said that the president’s success in pushing through his immigration agenda will make it difficult for Mr. Biden, should he win in November.
“If the president is not re-elected, and Joe Biden becomes the president, he and his administration are going to have their hands full on a number of fronts, Covid chief among them,” Mr. Lapan said. “Trying to undo the damage that has been done to the immigration system is going to be a further challenge. And how much is the next administration able to focus on that, given the panoply of challenges that they’re going to face?”