WASHINGTON — Fifteen days before the 2018 midterm elections, as President Trump sought to motivate Republicans with dark warnings about caravans heading to the U.S. border, he gathered his homeland security secretary and White House staff to deliver a message: “extreme action” was needed to stop the migrants.
That afternoon, at a separate meeting with top leaders of the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection officials suggested deploying a microwave weapon — a “heat ray” designed by the military to make people’s skin feel like it is burning when they get within range of its invisible beams.
Developed by the military as a crowd dispersal tool two decades ago, the Active Denial System had been largely abandoned amid doubts over its effectiveness and morality. Two former officials who attended the afternoon meeting at the Department of Homeland Security on Oct. 22, 2018, said the suggestion that the device be installed at the border shocked attendees, even if it would have satisfied the president.
Kirstjen Nielsen, then the secretary of homeland security, told an aide after the meeting that she would not authorize the use of such a device, and it should never be brought up again in her presence, the officials said.
Because of the president’s policies, Central American migrants fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries now must wait, often for months, in squalid camps on the Mexico side of the border while the United States considers their requests for asylum. For decades, asylum seekers were allowed to remain in the United States while their cases were decided.
Mr. Trump derides that as “catch and release,” which he says allowed hundreds of thousands of migrants to fraudulently claim persecution as a means of entering the United States and then disappearing into the country illegally. He repeatedly said it was his top priority to end the practice.
Advocates say he has largely succeeded, aided in part by the coronavirus pandemic. The president has used emergency powers intended for public health crises to turn away all asylum seekers, effectively ending the role of the United States as a place of refuge for those fleeing their homes.
Those deeply rooted changes are a “bell that can never be unrung,” one senior aide said.