Former President Donald Trump has outlined a radical shift in U.S. immigration policy if he's elected president again in 2024, vowing to implement a slew of unprecedented measures targeting both legal and unauthorized immigrants, including a massive deportation blitz.
In some ways, Trump, the front-runner to secure the Republican presidential nomination, is relying on the same hardline immigration playbook he used during his 2016 campaign. He has pledged to build miles of more border wall and impose dramatic limits on asylum, including by reviving a program his administration used to require migrants to await their asylum hearings in Mexico.
But in other ways, Trump's promises and rhetoric on immigration during his second presidential campaign have been harsher this time around. He has vowed to end birthright citizenship for the children of immigrants living in the country unlawfully, deputize the National Guard to carry out mass deportations and deny entry to legal immigrants based on their ideological beliefs. In one recent interview, Trump suggested that some migrants were "poisoning the blood of our country."
While they would mark a stark departure from current policy, many of Trump's immigration pledges would face formidable legal and operational challenges, testing the limits of presidential authority and government resources.
Angela Kelley, a former top Biden administration immigration official, called Trump's pledges "extreme" proposals that would "terrorize" immigrants. "The radical ideas that he had in his first term, from the Muslim ban and beyond, a lot of those got struck down. And now he's just taking another swing," said Kelley, now a chief adviser at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
But Chad Wolf, who led the Department of Homeland Security during Trump's final year in office, said officials who ignore the record levels of unlawful crossings along the southern border over the past two years are the ones with the "extreme" position. He said Americans want more aggressive actions to deal with the crisis there, including by deporting the estimated 1 million people who have been issued final deportation orders.
"If you go after those individuals and the criminals, of course, and others, I don't think that that's out of the norm. I don't think that that's a radical suggestion," said Wolf, who now works for the America First Policy Institute, a think tank that promotes Trump's agenda. "I think that is actually just implementing what the immigration law tells the executive to do."
Trump's 2024 immigration promises
Trump has promised to carry out the "largest deportation operation" in U.S. history, modeled after the Eisenhower administration's infamous "Operation Wetback" in 1954, when hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants and American citizens were deported.
To facilitate the mass deportations, Trump has said he will give the National Guard and state officials the authority to arrest and deport immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, a move that would challenge long-standing legal limits on the military engaging in domestic law enforcement. He has also pledged to invoke the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 — a law cited during World War II to approve the surveillance and detention of Italian, German and Japanese immigrants — to deport suspected migrant gang members.
Trump has vowed to issue an executive order on his first day back at the White House that would attempt to deny birthright citizenship to children with parents who are not American citizens or permanent residents. Under a decades-old interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, children born on U.S. soil are automatically bestowed American citizenship, even if their parents are not in the country legally.
The former president has said he would direct immigration officers to deny entry to "Marxists" and "communists," though he has not shared details on how such vetting would be implemented. He also committed to halting refugee admissions from the Middle East and expanding the travel ban his administration issued to bar the entry of citizens from certain countries, most of them majority Muslim or African.
At the U.S.-Mexico border, Trump has promised to reinstate the policies to disqualify most migrants from asylum and expedite their deportation. They include the so-called "Remain in Mexico" policy, agreements that allow the U.S. to reroute asylum-seekers to third countries and broad restrictions on asylum eligibility.
Trump has also said he would revive the Title 42 pandemic-era policy that U.S. border officials cited to expel migrants on public health grounds, including unaccompanied children. He has not ruled out separating migrant children from their parents, a practice he discontinued in 2018 due to public outcry.
Dramatic — but operationally and legally questionable — promises
If Trump is elected president a second time, his campaign pledges would surely receive the same legal pushback from Democratic-led states and civil rights organizations that his policies attracted during his first stint at the White House. He would also face the reality of an understaffed and overwhelmed immigration system that Congress has not updated since the 1990s.
Trump's promise to end birthright citizenship, for example, is legally questionable. Most legal scholars believe it is a right enshrined in the14th Amendment, which says "persons born or naturalized in the United States" are "citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."
Changing the Constitution must be proposed by a supermajority in Congress or a constitutional convention held by two-thirds of all states. It would then have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states.
The vow to carry out the largest deportation operation in U.S. history would face potentially insurmountable operational barriers. The deportation branch of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for example, has around 8,000 employees. The agency also does not have the funds to carry out the massive roundups and deportations Trump has previewed. The largest annual ICE deportation tally was recorded in 2012, when the Obama administration carried out over 400,000 deportations.
"It would require a massive amount of money appropriated by Congress," said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell University.
Yale-Loehr said such an operation would also raise significant legal and humanitarian concerns. U.S. law affords immigrants in deportation proceedings due process, he noted. Many immigrants who could be deportable have U.S. citizen spouses or children, raising the specter of large-scale family separations since the government does not have the legal authority to deport American citizens.
"It would be a significant change," Yale-Loehr said of the possibility of Trump's 2024 campaign promises being implemented. "But there's only so much you can do through executive action. Many of the things he tried before were immediately tied up in litigation, and were ultimately struck down by the courts."
Despite the legal and operational hurdles they face, Trump's immigration proposals have been embraced by the Republican presidential hopefuls closest to him in the polls. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy have both pledged to carry out mass deportations and end birthright citizenship.
Nikki Haley and Tim Scott have also joined Trump and DeSantis is calling for the U.S. to reject Palestinian refugees. And other GOP candidates, including moderate ones like Chris Christie, have promised to reinstate some of Trump's border policies and to build more miles of border wall.