Almost as soon as Donald Trump took office in 2017, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement were dispatched across the country to round up as many undocumented foreigners as possible, and the travel ban put into limbo the livelihoods of thousands of people from majority-Muslim countries who had won the hard-fought right to be here—refugees, tech entrepreneurs, and university professors among them. The administration drew up plans for erecting a border wall, as well as an approach to stripping away the due-process rights of noncitizens so they could be expelled faster. These changes to American immigration policy took place in the amount of time that it would take the average new hire to figure out how to use the office printer.
Within days of Trump’s election, his key immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, was already gathering a group of loyal bureaucrats to start drafting executive orders. Civil servants who were veterans of the George W. Bush administration found the proposals to be so outlandishly impractical, if not also harmful to American interests and perhaps even illegal, that they assumed the ideas could never come to fruition. They were wrong. Over the next four years, lone children were loaded onto planes and sent back to the countries they had fled without so much as a notification to their families. Others were wrenched from their parents’ arms as a way of sending a message to other families abroad about what awaited them if they, too, tried to enter the United States.
If given another chance to realize his goals, Miller has essentially boasted in recent interviews that he would move even faster and more forcefully. And Trump, who’s been campaigning on the promise to finish the job he started on immigration policy, would fairly assume if he is reelected that harsh restrictions in that arena are precisely what the American people want. “Following the Eisenhower model, we will carry out the largest domestic deportation operation in American history,” he declared during a speech in Iowa in September, referring to 1954’s offensively titled Operation Wetback, under which hundreds of thousands of people with Mexican ancestry were deported, including some who were American citizens.
Trump and other key fixtures of his time in office have refused to rule out trying to reinstate family separations. They have been explicit about their plans to send ICE agents back into the streets to make arrests (with help from the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the National Guard), and finish their work on the wall. They say that they will reimpose the pandemic-related expulsion policy known as Title 42, which all but shut off access to asylum, and that they will expand the use of military-style camps to house people who are caught in the enforcement dragnet. They have laid out plans and legal rationales for major policy changes that they didn’t get around to the first time, such as ending birthright citizenship, a long-held goal of Trump’s. They’ve floated ideas such as screening would-be immigrants for Marxist views before granting them entry, and using the Alien and Sedition Acts in service of deportations. Trump and his advisers have also made clear that they intend to invoke the Insurrection Act to allow them to deploy the U.S. military to the border, and to use an extensive naval blockade between the United States and Latin America to fight the drug trade. That most drug smuggling occurs at legal ports of entry doesn’t matter to Trump and his team: They seem to have reasonably concluded that immigration restrictions don’t have to be effective to be celebrated by their base.
The breakneck pace of work during Miller’s White House tour was periodically hampered by worried bureaucrats attempting end runs around him, or by his most powerful detractors, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, whispering reservations into the president’s ear. But Trump’s daughter and son-in-law have left politics altogether, and Miller used Trump’s term to perfect strategies for disempowering anyone else who dared to challenge him. As for job applicants to work in a second Trump administration, Miller told Axios that being in lockstep with him on immigration issues would be “non-negotiable.” Others need not apply.
Those who choose to join Trump in this mission to slash immigration would do so knowing that they would face few consequences, if any, for how they go about it: Almost all of the administration officials who pushed aggressively for the most controversial policies of Trump’s term continue to enjoy successful careers.
The speed of Trump’s work on immigration can obscure its impact in real time. This is why Lucas Guttentag, a law professor at Stanford and Yale and a senior counselor on immigration issues in the Obama and Biden administrations, created a database with his students to log and track the more than 1,000 immigration-policy changes made during Trump’s years in office. Most remain in place. This is worth dwelling on. Trump’s time in office already represents a resurgence of old, disproven ideas about the inherent threat—physical, cultural, and economic—posed by immigrants. And if Trump does return to office, this moment may qualify less as a blip than an era: a period like previous ones when such misconceptions prevailed, and laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act and eugenics-based national-origins quotas ruled the day.
Returning Trump to the presidency would reopen wounds that have barely healed in the communities he has said he would target immediately. Recently, I stood outside a church in the Northeast that caters mostly to undocumented farmworkers, with a Catholic sister who oversees the parish’s programming. As we stood in the autumn light, I remarked on the picturesque scene around her place of worship and work. She replied by pointing in one direction, then another, then another, at the places where she said ICE agents used to hide out on Sunday mornings during the Trump administration, waiting to capture her congregants as they left Mass to go about their weekly errands at the laundromat and the grocery store.
Beyond the emotional impact of Trump’s return, the economy could also face a pummeling if the number of immigrant workers, legal and otherwise, were to drop. In a November 2022 speech, Jerome Powell, the chair of the Federal Reserve, detailed the harm from COVID-related dips in immigration, which left the country short an estimated 1 million workers.
America’s rightward shift on immigration is part of a global story in which Western countries are, in general, turning against immigrants. But the world tends to look to the United States as a guide for what sorts of checks on immigration are socially permissible. A new Trump administration would provide a pretty clear answer: just about any.
An anything-goes approach to immigration enforcement may indeed be what the country is left with if Trump succeeds in the next general election. “The first 100 days of the Trump administration will be pure bliss,” Stephen Miller told Axios, “followed by another four years of the most hard-hitting action conceivable.”
This article appears in the January/February 2024 print edition with the headline “The Specter of Family Separation.”