Monday, June 14, 2021

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    Border Officials Weighed Deploying Migrant ‘Heat Ray’ Ahead of Midterms

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    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.

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    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.

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    Impeachment, once seen as the battle of a generation, has vanished from the political landscape.

    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.

    Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

    Even before the pandemic, Mr. Trump had lowered the annual cap for refugees to a trickle, shutting the United States off from war-torn countries like Syria or Somalia.

    “Refugees have been left separated from their families or in the United States they’ve been left without access to critical medical care, or have been left in places where their lives are in danger,” said Eleanor Acer, the senior director for refugee protection at Human Rights First. “And for refugees seeking asylum, the asylum system has been totally decimated. Refugees seeking asylum have been turned back to some of the most dangerous places in the world.”

    And from the earliest days of his presidency, Mr. Trump has used national security concerns to justify a crackdown on immigration from around the globe, imposing a travel ban on several predominantly Muslim countries only days after taking office in January 2017. A version of that travel ban remains in place and served as the template for other travel bans put in place during the pandemic.

    Processing of visa applications from many countries had already slowed to a crawl before the health crisis as the administration aggressively put in place what the president called “extreme vetting” of people from countries deemed to harbor terrorists.

    The Trump administration has also moved aggressively to reduce the flow of legal immigrants who have for decades sought to live and work in the United States.

    It has drafted new regulations aimed at making it harder for poor immigrants to qualify for entry into the United States, arguing that they would be a financial burden on the country. And it has aggressively sought to eliminate programs that allowed American companies to lure foreign workers to the United States for jobs.

    Mr. Miller, in particular, has argued that such programs put working-class Americans at a competitive disadvantage — a potent campaign theme — though experts say that, over all, immigrants do not drive down wages or take jobs from American citizens.

    Some conservatives say Mr. Trump has not gone far enough to stop immigrants from working in the United States.

    “There are areas where this administration isn’t as hawkish as they should be,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which pushes for immigration restrictions. He said Mr. Trump had failed to push for a program that would let employers quickly determine if a worker was in the country illegally.

    “Where the hell is E-verify?” he asked. Mr. Krikorian said the president had done little to end the H-2B visa program that allows companies to hire temporary workers from abroad for seasonal jobs. “The H-2B program shouldn’t exist. It is harmful, period.”

    Still, David Lapan, who served briefly as the top spokesman at the Department of Homeland Security in 2017, said that the president’s success in pushing through his immigration agenda would make it difficult for Mr. Biden, should he win in November.

    “If the president is not re-elected, and Joe Biden becomes the president, he and his administration are going to have their hands full on a number of fronts, Covid chief among them,” Mr. Lapan said. “Trying to undo the damage that has been done to the immigration system is going to be a further challenge. And how much is the next administration able to focus on that, given the panoply of challenges that they’re going to face?”

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