How Trump’s first term may have laid the groundwork to make his radical immigration agenda a reality

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It took Donald Trump one week in the Oval Office to set off an immigration firestorm with the stroke of a pen.

The executive order Trump signed in January 2017 was intended to immediately deliver on a campaign pledge to ban entry into the US from certain Muslim-majority nations.

Instead, it sparked protests, a series of successful legal challenges, and recriminations from Republican lawmakers and officials alike, who viewed the effort as a half-baked, self-inflicted wound by a new administration quickly being defined by chaos.

The backlash and disarray came to define the early months of an administration that lacked the preparation, personnel and legal underpinning to impose swift and severe changes on a complex and bureaucratic immigration system.

But in the years since, that initial failure has served to obscure the eventual outcome of a policy that originated as a 2015 campaign press release calling for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”

A revised version of the proposal was later implemented, upheld by the Supreme Court and expanded. The policy dramatically slashed entries into the US and helped reshape how front-line US officials would apply immigration law around the world.

As Trump and his advisers map out a potential second-term agenda, the pathway to the implementation and application of the travel ban is a critical window into understanding their ambitions for immigration policy.

The anti-immigrant rhetoric that defined Trump’s successful 2016 campaign has darkened and grown even more inflammatory as he seeks a return to the White House.

He has framed the current migrant crisis as an “invasion” by dangerous criminals, who in some cases “are not people.”

But the focus on Trump’s incendiary language can obscure an expansive and largely unprecedented swath of immigration policy proposals.

They include mass arrests, detention and deportation. Federal law enforcement would be restructured to direct “massive portions” of agency personnel toward immigration enforcement. The National Guard would be deployed and, if necessary, US troops as well.

Trump’s advisers don’t see their agenda as aspirational political messaging.

“Think about the first term, but on steroids,” a former senior Trump administration official who is working outside the campaign to draft immigration policy options for a second term.

In interviews with more than a dozen Trump allies, lawmakers and advocates opposed to his immigration positions, there’s consistent agreement on one thing: Trump has every intention of making good on what he’s pledging at campaign rallies.

“It’s important to kind of take him at his word of what he’s promising,” said Todd Schulte, the president of the immigration and criminal justice advocacy group FWD.us, which battled with Trump during his first term. “What I do know is that his tools to try and do it will have radically expanded from last time.”

Should Trump defeat President Joe Biden in November, advisers and outside allies say they have mapped out a concrete pathway to rapid implementation of that agenda, bolstered by the lessons learned from Trump’s previous stint in office and the steady and systematic weakening of the key forces that hampered those earlier efforts: public opinion, Congress and the courts.

Plans and personnel

Stephen Miller, one of Trump’s closest advisers who is expected to run point on immigration in a potential second term, said on a January podcast that their plans would call for “an all-of-nation, all-of-government, state, local and federal effort.”

“It’s a feat similar in size and scale to the other Great American projects that have been undertaken, for example, the transcontinental railroad or digging the Panama Canal,” Miller told podcast host Sebastian Gorka, another onetime Trump adviser who remains close to the former president.

The rapid implementation of those proposals would be driven by veterans of Trump’s first term, who would once again be tapped to lead the effort.

One Democratic lawmaker who works on immigration issues told CNN that Miller was “the most dangerous person in Trump’s inner circle.”

Asked why, the lawmaker replied: “Because he has an encyclopedic knowledge of how things actually work.”

The plans are neither secret, nor subtle. Instead, they are being shaped by close allies and Trump administration veterans.

“On Day One, we will begin the largest domestic deportation operation in American history,” Trump says at every campaign rally.

He even cites the precedent his team plans to utilize for the effort – the deportation initiative undertaken by the Eisenhower administration in 1954. Behind the scenes, advisers are eyeing statutes ranging from the 18th century to the Clinton era to provide the necessary legal underpinning.

Draft executive orders have been formulated and would be ready to be revised and deployed at Trump’s request.

Key personnel priorities – particularly for political appointees who wouldn’t need to go through a Senate confirmation process – have been mapped out to ensure Trump’s plans would be put into motion immediately.

Trump White House veterans are keenly aware of career government officials on the front lines who were aligned with and willing to embrace and implement Trump’s hard-line policies.

In his campaign speeches, the former president has pledged to dramatically expand ideological screening, use federal law to “deny entry to all communists and Marxists,” and to revoke the visas of “radical anti-American and antisemitic foreigners” enrolled at US colleges and universities.

Refugee and asylum claims, both key targets during Trump’s first term, would once again be sharply curtailed.

Temporary work permits would be terminated and Trump has pledged to halt the use of parole authority.

The pandemic-era authority known as Title 42, which the Trump administration utilized to implement a de facto shutdown of the southern border, would be reimplemented.

Trump, who while in office privately raised the idea of shooting missiles into Mexico to take out “drug labs,” has campaigned on an explicit war against cartels.

The US Navy would be deployed to impose a “full naval embargo on the cartels,” according to the policy laid out on Trump’s campaign website.

The Pentagon would be directed to deploy special forces, cyber warfare “and other covert and overt actions to inflict maximum damage on cartel leadership, infrastructure, and operations.”

The plans would, in many ways, build off the more than 1,000 policy actions taken during Trump’s first term – all of which the former president and his advisers plan to reenforce.

It’s a reality that underscores the overwhelming scale of the immigration effort Trump and his advisers undertook while in office.

By the time Trump left the White House, his team had reshaped not just the policy, but every level of a complex interagency process that crosses everything from Customs and Border Protection Border Patrol agents to State Department consular officers. The result was a radically altered immigration paradigm that had been in place for decades under administrations from both parties.

“Americans can expect that immediately upon President Trump’s return to the Oval Office, he will restore all of his prior policies, implement brand new crackdowns that will send shockwaves to all the world’s criminal smugglers, and marshal every federal and state power necessary to institute the largest deportation operation in American history,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Karoline Leavitt said in a statement to CNN.

Undocumented immigrants who crossed the border since Trump left office, Leavitt added, “should not get comfortable because very soon they will be going home.”

A contrast with Biden

Biden entered the White House pledging to be Trump’s opposite on immigration. Just hours after his inaugural address, he signed a series of executive actions from the Oval Office to swiftly undo key Trump policies in pursuit of what Biden framed as a “humane immigration system that operates consistently with our nation’s values.”

On his first day in office, Biden rescinded the former president’s travel ban, along with a series of other Trump immigration policies.

But officials cautioned that the process to implement further reforms would take time – and require congressional action. The lead agencies had been hollowed out in the Trump administration, with a sharp increase in departures from career officials who objected to the policies and chafed under intense White House pressure on their portfolios, multiple Biden administration officials recounted to CNN.

The hundreds of executive actions the Trump administration put into place touched every corner of federal authority and were implemented in an interconnected and granular level, the officials said.

Three and a half years later, congressional legislative efforts have fallen apart, with Trump playing a central role in torpedoing a bipartisan Senate border compromise in February.

Biden’s own executive actions ran headlong into his own thicket of political, legal and policy constraints, driven in no small part by the sheer scale of the overhaul he inherited from Trump.

All the while, a series of interlocking migrant crises and cross-cutting political considerations in the wake of the pandemic have elevated immigration to a central electoral issue.

The failed bipartisan Senate proposal captured a dramatic shift on immigration. The White House and Senate Democratic supporters moved firmly behind a proposal that contained no pathway to citizenship or protections for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Republican priorities that in past negotiations would’ve been nonstarters for Democrats had become key selling points.

If the long-running border crisis was the driving policy motivation, the enforcement-focused bill was at least partly also driven by new political realities.

Biden’s public pledge to devise and implement a “humane” immigration system had given way to a public promise to use emergency authority in the Senate legislation to “shut down the border right now.”

There’s also been a sharp rise in the share of Americans who call immigration the most important problem facing the country, and it has topped every other named issue for three consecutive months, Gallup polling found in April.

An April CNN poll conducted by SSRS found that 76% of registered voters viewed immigration as extremely or very important to their presidential vote.

Trump, in poll after head-to-head poll, holds a significant edge over Biden on the issue.

Biden and his allies have pushed to highlight Trump’s role in killing the bipartisan Senate proposal to address the border crisis.

In closed-door fundraisers, Biden has also called attention to the radical nature of Trump’s immigration proposals – something his 2020 campaign used to its advantage.

“We have to be able to control our border, any country does,” Biden said at a May 10 fundraiser in California. “But the way he talks about it and what he wants to do is criminal. Folks, that’s not who we are. That’s not America.”

Looking beyond the rhetoric

Still, Trump allies view the shift in public sentiment on immigration as a key political opportunity – one the former president presses at every opportunity, with a flourish of fear-mongering, hyperbole and outright lies.

“These are people coming out of jails and prisons, they’re coming out of mental institutions, insane asylums,” Trump said at a rally in Michigan earlier this month, repeating a line that remains as devoid of evidence now as it was when he first started using it during the Republican primary. “These are not people we want, and they’re coming from all over the world.”

Trump and his campaign have been unapologetic about the rhetoric – and have actively looked for ways to draw attention to what they see as a critical advantage.

After Trump used the term “bloodbath” during a campaign rally in Ohio in reference to Biden’s electric vehicle policy, the campaign faced blowback over what was perceived as a reference to what would happen in the country if Trump lost the election.

Within a day, the Trump campaign had moved to co-opt the term as its own – and apply it to his immigration proposals in ads and stump speeches.

“He said a lot of that last time so people think he can’t do it this time,” Schulte, of the pro-immigration group FWD.us, said of Trump’s rhetoric and campaign trail immigration promises. “It feels a bit abstract. It shouldn’t.”

The dramatic scale of Trump’s immigration agenda would have a sweeping effect across the US, Schulte said – one that shouldn’t get lost in debates over his rhetoric.

A mass deportation effort would be certain to sharply curtail productivity, Schulte said, given the critical role played by immigrants in the US economy. Federal spending would face a dramatic increase between the deployment of resources, personnel and incentives for state and local authorities to cooperate, he added.

Mass deportations would also require the country to grapple with the reality of the US government “trying to hunt down, round up and deport millions of people here,” Schulte said. “What does it mean? What does it look like?”

Trump allies say the changing public attitudes on immigration have created space to enact their most aggressive – and expansive – policy ambitions at the same moment that the other central roadblocks to Trump’s immigration goals have been dramatically diminished.

Once viewed as radical and relegated to the fringes of the GOP, Trump’s immigration agenda is now an animating force for most, if not all, Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Trump would also stand to benefit in a second term from one of the cornerstone achievements of his first four years in office: a reshaped federal judiciary.

More than 200 current district and appeals court judges were nominated by Trump and confirmed by a Republican-led Senate.

“He’s going to start with a federal bench that has a lot more judges likely to be sympathetic to his arguments,” said CNN Supreme Court analyst Steve Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor. “That’s going to be especially pronounced in some parts of the country, but it really is a nationwide phenomenon.”

Trump’s revised travel ban was upheld in 2018 by the Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote that served to validate an expansive view of executive authority on immigration. But is also offered the first window into the weight carried by Trump’s nominees to the nation’s highest court after the confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Trump would go on to nominate two more justices – Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett – who would give conservatives a 6-3 majority, something his advisers regularly point to as they look toward potential second-term legal battles.

But veterans of those battles say the strategy is much bigger than the judges themselves.

Like so much of what Trump advisers are mapping out for a second term, it’s driven by the lessons learned from the first, including the speed and scale with which they plan to operate.

“One of the other things the Trump folks learned during the first term was that sometimes you win by just flooding the zone,” Vladeck said. “Flooding the zone is a big part of the agenda.”

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