President Donald Trump tours a section of the border wall.Evan Vucci/AP
Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.Before Donald Trump became president and presided over some of the most draconian anti-immigrant policies in recent memory, he laid out his vision for the United States. In August 2016, he was still a candidate and during a campaign stop in Phoenix, Arizona, he delivered a speech focused on immigration. “On day one,” he announced, “we will begin working on an intangible, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful southern border wall.” He vowed to only “get the right people” into the country by requiring “ideological certification to make sure that those we are admitting to our country share our values and love our people.” The 2016 election, Trump said, “is our last chance to secure the border, stop illegal immigration, and reform our laws to make your life better.”
As a presidential candidate, Trump made starkly clear his racist, unfounded views of Mexican immigrants, calling them “drug dealers, criminals, rapists.” He praised flawed racially-motivated mass deportation policies, such as Operation Wetback from the 1950s, which led to tens of thousands of Mexican nationals—and even some US citizens—being rounded up, put on buses and trucks, and removed under inhumane conditions to the interior of Mexico. In 2015, Scott Pelley asked Trump about the policy on 60 Minutes, saying “There is something called civil rights.” Trump fired back, “There’s also something called, ‘We have a country.’”
Fast forward to Trump’s 2023 presidential campaign, where with his loyal anti-immigration mastermind Stephen Miller, he’s laying the groundwork for the second Trump administration, which will involve an even more extreme and sweeping assault on immigration. As Miller put it: “Trump will unleash the vast arsenal of federal powers to implement the most spectacular migration crackdown…The immigration legal activists won’t know what’s happening.”
“What former President Trump and Stephen Miller are laying out has crossed a line that should set off alerts for every American,” Vanessa Cardenas, executive director of America’s Voice, said during a recent press call with reporters. “Calling his political opponents ‘vermin,’ saying that the blood of America is being poisoned, and the continuous calls to violence, election denialism, and white nationalism cannot be normalized or go unchallenged. What Trump is describing is not just about immigration policies…He’s openly talking about changing who we are as a nation, who is considered American, who belongs to this country.”
Latino voters appear to be evenly divided between Trump and Biden, including in battleground states. And with the economy and the war in Israel, immigration policy might not rank as the top-of-mind issue for most voters. But it has the potential to draw a striking contrast between the two candidates. Biden came into power vowing to roll back many of Trump’s worst policies and restore humanity to a broken immigration system. While he has delivered on some campaign promises—rescinding the Remain in Mexico program, launching efforts to reunite families separated under Trump, and expanding the use of temporary humanitarian protections for migrants from several nationalities—his administration has also come under fire from advocates for turning to restrictive asylum measures and even Trump-like policies to appease criticism from Republicans of “open borders.”
Immigration has long been a hot-button, base-rallying issue for Trump and the GOP. But it is one that has come to be perceived as a political liability for Biden, who is unable to please either immigration advocates or those in favor of a tougher approach. “No matter how cruel or restrictive Mr. Biden’s policies are, they will never be enough to appease his critics,” David J. Bier of the Cato Institute wrote in the New York Times this month. “They also aren’t working. He can continue to do everything Mr. Trump did and more and still be the ‘open-borders president.’” Instead of brushing immigration to the wayside as a campaign issue, there’s a growing chorus for Biden to embrace it. Indeed, some political strategists believe the current moment presents an opportunity for the president to come out on top and win over a critical segment of the electorate. “Biden’s poor numbers on immigration and with Latino voters aren’t a coincidence,” Sawyer Hackett, a Democratic strategist and consultant, said on X. “Yes, like all voters, Latinos don’t vote on immigration alone. But in cycles when the immigration contrast has been front-and-center, Democrats have done extremely well. Ceding political ground on this issue is terrible politics and terrible for the human lives involved.”
Especially as Trump becomes increasingly strident. As if separating families at the border, undercutting the refugee program, and forcing asylum seekers to wait in squalid migrant camps in dangerous Mexican border towns wasn’t bad enough the first time around, Trump and Miller have dialed up the cruelty. Their plan, first reported by the New York Times, includes bringing back Trump-era policies such as the travel ban on travelers from Muslin-majority countries and Title 42, a border measure premised on a health statute used to summarily expel migrants, which Trump invoked during the Covid-19 pandemic, but will expand to other infectious diseases.
Trump’s plans also include fast-tracked mass deportations and detention camps, and the deployment of state law enforcement to conduct raids. In a second term, Trump would likely try to end birthright citizenship for US-born children of undocumented immigrants—an extreme stance that appears to have become a mainstream GOP policy. Plus, the visas issued to foreign students who took part in pro-Palestine protests would be revoked, as would the temporary legal status of thousands of Afghans who have resettled in the United States since 2021.
Trump recently went on Univision, the most popular Spanish-speaking network in the United States, to tout his record on immigration. On an exclusive, extremely friendly interview reportedly set up with the help of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, the former president went unchallenged as he falsely claimed the Obama administration also separated families as a matter of policy and bragged without providing any evidence that “we had the most secure border in history” during his presidency. The interview sparked backlash from dozens of Latino organizations, who, in a letter to Univision executives, criticized the dissemination of “unfiltered, unaddressed, and unrestricted disinformation.”
It doesn’t take a degree in immigration law to realize how legally dubious and chilling these proposals are. Many of these so-called policies would inevitably be subject to challenges in court, but one of Miller’s projects since the end of the Trump administration has been as president of America First Legal, a conservative legal organization that engages in “relentless litigation” and purports to be a “long-awaited answer to the ACLU.” In the past few years, America First Legal has sued the Biden administration over a broad collection of policies, from a debt relief program for Black farmers to anti-discrimination protections for transgender patients.
Presumably, Miller has learned a trick or two about legal warfare and raised millions of dollars in the process. America First Legal’s financial documents show revenue growth of 600 percent—from about $6.3 million to almost $44.4 million between fiscal years 2021 and 2022, boosting Miller’s $110,062 original salary by $77,000. The organization also added Blake Masters, the defeated Arizona senate candidate who spawned conspiracy theories linking migration to a supposed plot by Democrats to win elections by changing the demographics of the country, to its board of directors packed with former Trump officials.
Will Trump and Miller’s anti-immigration agenda also create an opening for the Biden campaign to take the offensive on this issue? CBS News recently reported that the campaign has plans to “bring attention” to Trump’s extreme proposals in hopes of turning potential Latino voters away from the GOP candidate, who is polling well with that demographic. “Donald Trump is offering us a vision of what America would be under his second term in the White House in 2025,” María Carolina Casado, the campaign’s Hispanic media director, told CBS News. “This is not about restoring our immigration system—that he basically destroyed—or border security. This is about hurting our Latino community, hurting our families and family separation.” In a statement, Ammar Moussa, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign, said, “These extreme, racist, cruel policies dreamed up by him and his henchman Stephen Miller are meant to stoke fear and divide us, betting a scared and divided nation is how he wins this election.”
Immigration advocates are ramping up their calls on the Biden administration to embrace an unapologetically pro-immigrant stance, both in rhetoric and policymaking. “This isn’t merely a call to ring the alarms on a Trump second term,” Praeli said. “It is also a call to action to Democrats and to President Biden, to not just be in a dueling vision match, but to advance a proactive, pro-immigrant narrative, to claim it and to embrace it and also to deliver for people right now. He has the power of the presidency right now to show a much stronger vision and to draw that contrast in real-time.” As the New Yorker‘s Jonathan Blitzer posted on X, the Biden administration might prefer to avoid talking about immigration, but Trump’s “extremism gives Biden the space to pitch himself as a true foil/alternative.”