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What a second-term Trump immigration agenda might look like

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Donald Trump was barely 200 words into the speech launching his first bid for the White House when he turned to an idea that would become central to his presidency...

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DONALD TRUMP: The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems.

DETROW: ...Immigration.

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TRUMP: When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.

DETROW: Throughout his campaign, Trump repeatedly equated immigrants to criminals, and he pledged to crack down on illegal immigration at the southern border, which, of course, gave birth to his signature slogan.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Chanting) Build that wall. Build that wall. Build that wall.

DETROW: But Trump also ran on sharp cuts to legal immigration, cuts that would fundamentally reshape U.S. immigration policy and potentially violate its Constitution.

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TRUMP: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.

DETROW: And when Trump won the presidency, he got to work quickly to implement them.

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TRUMP: And this is border security.

DETROW: On the fifth day of his presidency, he signed an executive order that would build his border wall. And then two days after that...

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POPPY HARLOW: We begin tonight with breaking news, lawyers saying dozens and dozens of travelers are being detained right now at New York's JFK airport, this as a result of President Trump's controversial executive order banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

DETROW: The first version of Trump's travel ban went into effect near instantaneously, when people were already in the air en route to the United States. In Trump's second year in office, the administration began separating parents who crossed the border illegally from their children. Here's Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in May 2018.

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KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Don't break the law. I mean, that's why they're separated because they're breaking the law. They're coming across the border, and they're breaking the law. In the United States, if you break the law, you go to jail, and you're separated from your family. It shouldn't be any different for illegal immigrants.

DETROW: As of last year, the American Civil Liberties Union said that up to 1,000 children had still not been reunited with their parents. Now Trump is running for office again, and immigration and vilification of immigrants is still a centerpiece of his pitch.

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TRUMP: They're poisoning the blood of our country. That's what they've done. They poison mental institutions and prisons all over the world, not just in South America, not just the three or four countries that we think about, but all over the world. They're coming into our country from Africa, from Asia, all over the world.

DETROW: Throughout this presidential campaign, we are digging into what a second Trump administration would mean for this country. And for our cover story this week, we are looking at immigration, where Trump has promised to take his crackdowns even further. Joining me now to talk about it is Franco Ordoñez. He's joining me from Nevada, where he's covering the presidential campaign. In addition to covering the campaign, Franco has covered immigration, both during the Trump presidency and the Biden administration. Hey, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So if you define a unifying framework for Trump's immigration policies during his presidency, how would you describe it?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, this has been his bread-and-butter issue ever since, you know, he rode down the escalator at Trump Tower and said those words that you just played at the top about not bringing their best. I mean, he has been stoking fears and anger about immigrants from the beginning. He did it in his campaign, and he really carried it to when he was president. And you laid it out very well. I mean, he introduced some of the harshest policies the country has ever seen - the border wall, the travel ban, refusing asylum to migrants coming at the border. That was Title 42, of course. Remain In Mexico - people had to stay in Mexico as they awaited asylum proceedings. And of course, there was the zero-tolerance policy, as you said, family separation. And that just led to a national scandal when thousands of kids...

DETROW: Yeah.

ORDOÑEZ: ...Were being separated.

DETROW: And when you look at what Trump was trying to do, did these policies work? Did they reduce immigration to this country?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, I think that's one of the toughest questions I get asked about Trump's immigration policies. I mean, I think it's fair to say that the results were mixed. It did stop migrants for a bit. You know, historically, though, that happens when almost any new policy is introduced. Smugglers kind of wait to get a feel for it. But these numbers are cyclical, and smugglers eventually adjust. And they did for Trump, too, even after some of these harshest policies. Child separation was back in 2018, and it was only months later that the numbers started going up again.

And then in early 2019, Trump was just furious with record levels of migration. I mean, do you remember all those firings at DHS? You pointed out Kirstjen Nielsen. Well, she resigned under this pressure when Trump wanted to get tougher. I mean, he talks a lot on the campaign now about how everything was hunky-dory, that there wasn't problems on the border. But that's not really true. It's not really true at all. There were a lot of problems.

DETROW: And immigration has continued to be a big political issue, and he's talking a lot about it as he runs again. He's often, at times, as we heard, using historically fascist language to talk about this issue. When it comes to policies, what do we know about what Trump would want to do if he returns to the White House?

ORDOÑEZ: He's expected to return to many of these policies that we've been talking about. But, you know, he's also talking about expanding them. You know, he's promised the biggest deportation operation in America, a return to Remain In Mexico, an expanded travel ban. He wants ideological screenings to root out sympathizers of Hamas and extremist groups. You know, he's talked about ending birthright citizenship. And Scott, even when he was pressed last year about restarting the zero-tolerance policy, the family separations, you know, he wouldn't rule it out.

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TRUMP: Well, when you have that policy, people don't come. If a family hears that they're going to be separated, they love their family. They don't come. So I know it sounds harsh.

DETROW: Franco, there is an interesting dynamic here that's worth talking about for a few moments because even though the rhetoric of the Biden administration is obviously way different than the Trump administration when it comes to immigration - but I think it's surprised a lot of people that the Biden administration kept a lot of Trump border policies in place. And they've really gotten criticized for that by Biden's own base.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, Latino advocates have really, really been angry about that. I mean, Biden did end the travel ban. He stopped building of the wall, at least temporarily. You know, and he introduced legislation that would legalize millions of people here illegally. But he kept Title 42. He actually defended it in court for more than a year as advocates tried to shut it down. And then later, recently, a few months ago, he's even started building more wall. And kind of as you point out, you know, things are really starting to get crazy that Biden is starting to sound more and more like Trump. He's talking about shutting the border down and suspending asylum.

DETROW: And a lot of this came to a head this past week when you saw a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate that would deal with a lot of these immigration issues. Biden came out and supported it. But then you saw it collapsed, mostly because Trump weighed in, urging Republicans to kill it. This is something Trump bragged about.

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TRUMP: A lot of the senators are trying to say, respectfully, they're blaming it on me. I said, that's OK. Please blame it on me, please - because they were getting ready to pass a very bad bill.

DETROW: Franco, what is Trump and his camp thinking here? Why is he willing to attach himself to the collapse of a piece of legislation trying to fix something that there is broad support for fixing in this country?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, it's politics. It's very much politics. I mean, this is such a bad issue for Biden. Polls show voters trust Republicans more than Democrats on the issue. And it's something that really, really excites the Republican base. And recently, it's looking more like the general electorate also is concerned about the borders. You have Democratic governors and mayors calling for Biden to do more - I mean, in strong, strong language.

I mean, this whole issue just helps Trump politically. I mean, the biggest case that he is making in Iowa, in New Hampshire, here in Nevada is that only he can fix the border, that they need to return to his policies. So he doesn't really want Biden to do it before he can, or he doesn't want people thinking that Biden can do it.

DETROW: You mentioned you're talking to us from Nevada. You're there covering the Republican caucuses, which Trump just won easily. This is a state with a lot of Latino voters. Immigration is a big issue in Nevada. What did you hear from Latino voters?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, I mean, like a lot of Americans, Latino voters are very concerned about Trump's language. I mean, you have so many mixed families here with loved ones who are undocumented, and this idea, this talk of mass deportations is causing a lot of fear and anxiety. But, I mean, I got to tell you, Scott, I was also surprised to hear more voices, Latino voices advocating for stronger borders. They were talking about concerns of competition, you know, other immigrants crossing in line, telling me that a lot of the people crossing the border aren't even Latinos.

And that was - this is kind of a first for me. I mean, you hear some of this in Miami, you know, a different type of, you know, Latino electorate. But hearing it here, where there are a lot of, you know, Latin American, South American, Central Americans, it was surprising to hear that kind of voice and that kind of openness.

DETROW: Interesting. So Trump spoke the night that he won the caucuses. It was an interesting day for him. The day began with Supreme Court oral arguments tied to whether or not Trump should be allowed on the ballots due to January 6. Did Trump talk about immigration in his victory speech?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. I mean, another surprise was how short his speech was. I mean, it was actually only 12 minutes. I mean, Trump usually goes on a lot longer than that. But again, immigration is such a big issue. Border is such a big issue. So it was, you know, a central part of the - you know, the victory speech. You know, and he used a lot of the invasion-type language, you know, playing off the fears of immigrants and sending, you know, the worst of the worst, you know, that we've heard all along. You know, he's promising to, you know, clamp down on the border. But again, you know, he's stoking those fears and anger about, you know, what people feel about migration. And I think it shows what we're going to continue to hear from the former president over the course of the next year.

DETROW: NPR's Franco Ordoñez joining us from Nevada, where he's covering the presidential campaign. Thanks for talking to us.

ORDOÑEZ: Thanks, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIRAA MAY SONG, "INTERNET TROLLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Franco Ordoñez
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.