Aug 21, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Inside Trump's new plan to limit immigration

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP, Drew Angerer, and Daniel Cardenas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Former President Trump wants unprecedented restrictions on immigration and the border if he's elected in 2024 — such as screening prospective immigrants for "Marxist" ideologies and a naval blockade to target drug smugglers, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: As president, Trump built part of a border wall, began stringent wealth and health tests for prospective immigrants and limited asylum. His 2025 plan would go much further — potentially making it tougher for millions of foreigners to enter or stay in the U.S.

Trump's plan would involve waves of harsh new policies — and dust off old ones that rarely have been enforced, if ever. It would:

  • Ramp up ideological screening for people legally applying to come into the country. U.S. law has blocked communists from entering for decades, it just hasn't been enforced. Trump wants to enforce it to reject applicants who are deemed "Marxists."
  • Send the Coast Guard and the Navy to form a blockade in the waters off the U.S. and Latin America to stop drug smuggling boats. It would be a significant step up Trump's show of force in 2020, when he sent warships to the Caribbean as a warning to cartels.
  • Expand Trump's "Muslim ban" idea to block more people from certain countries from entering the U.S. As president he banned immigration from more than a dozen countries that are mostly Muslim or in Africa; President Biden rescinded that executive order.
  • Designate drug cartels as "unlawful enemy combatants" to allow the U.S. military to target them in Mexico. The U.S. has used that designation to justify long-term detentions of 9/11 suspects at Guantanamo Bay.
  • Seek to end birthright citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants. Trump considered this as president, but today's conservative-leaning Supreme Court has given his team more confidence about taking on an inevitable legal fight.
  • Extend Texas' controversial floating barriers in the Rio Grande.
  • Quickly deport migrant gang members, smugglers and other criminals, using an obscure section of the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts.
  • Complete his border wall. Trump spent billions to put 452 miles of new fencing along the 1,954-mile southern border. Biden halted the project.

What they're saying: "For those passionate about securing our immigration system... the first 100 days of the Trump administration will be pure bliss — followed by another four years of the most hard-hitting action conceivable," Trump adviser Stephen Miller told Axios.

  • Trump would rush "people through the system, stripping due process protections from them, eliminating any access to legal services, and really transforming this into an assembly line deportation machine," the American Immigration Council's Aaron Reichlin-Melnick told Axios.

Zoom in: Trump's focus is the southern border, but he's also poised to severely curtail legal immigration — a plan likely to be controversial at a time when many experts say the U.S. increasingly needs immigrants to fuel its economy.

  • His enhanced screening of immigration applicants' ideologies would involve searching their social media accounts, a source familiar with Trump's plan said. Visa applicants already have to provide their social media handles, a practice that began under Trump.
  • He plans to cut access to the U.S. immigration system for countries whose citizens have high rates of staying in the U.S. illegally after their visas expire.
  • Trump also wants to require prospective immigrants to prove they can afford health insurance, and force some travelers pay hefty bonds to enter the U.S.

Zoom out: Several of Trump's plans — such as declaring cartels "unlawful enemy combatants" and a naval blockade — could increase tensions with Mexico, whose cooperation Trump would need.

  • The Biden administration sued Texas over its use of buoys and barbed wire in the Rio Grande, which has led to deaths of migrants and angered Mexican officials.
  • Trump would rely on Mexico to restart the "Remain in Mexico" policy, which forced people seeking asylum in the U.S. to wait in Mexico for their court hearings, raising humanitarian concerns.

Trump would restore a slew of asylum restrictions, renegotiating deals with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — and potentially other nations— to send regional migrants there shortly after they reach the U.S.

  • He would point to general illness coming across the border to try to reimpose Title 42 — the public health order used millions of times during the pandemic to expel migrants who entered the U.S. illegally.
  • Trump promises to explicitly use Title 42 to expel kids — framing it as an effort to fight child trafficking.
  • "It is the QAnon-ization of border policy," Reichlin-Melnick said. "We are seeing a lot more talk about the border as a hub for child sex trafficking, even though there is effectively no evidence."

Undocumented immigrants in the U.S. would face a far more aggressive approach to arrests and deportation.

  • Trump would seek to involve agents from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and possibly the National Guard in tracking them down.

Between the lines: Trump's team is focusing on two sections of U.S. law to justify several plans.

  • Section 212f of the U.S. code grants the president broad power to "suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants" if their entry "would be detrimental to the interests of the United States."
  • Trump previously cited this law in his Muslim ban, and likely would use it to limit who's eligible to immigrate — in a way that would particularly restrict those from impoverished nations, the source familiar said.
  • He also is eyeing the Alien Enemies Act — part of the Alien and Sedition Acts signed by President John Adams in 1798.
  • Trump wants to use the often-overlooked law to quickly remove smugglers and migrant criminals — without having to go through legal steps in ICE's deportation process — by claiming an "invasion" at the border and labeling certain nationalities "alien enemies."
  • That almost certainly would draw legal challenges.

The intrigue: Trump would need cooperation from leaders at the departments of State, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and Justice.

  • That's where his push for new loyalty tests would come into play — a priority for the ex-president who's facing four felony indictments and the prospect of a parade of former aides testifying against him in those cases.
  • Agreement on the immigration goals would be a "non-negotiable priority" for many Trump administration positions, Miller said.
  • Career officials in key parts of government who support Trump's plan would be promoted quickly to carry it out, a source familiar with the plans told Axios.
  • Trump is determined to purge civil servants and fill career government posts with loyalists using an executive order called "Schedule F," as Axios has reported.
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