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

[August 26, 2020] 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 as if 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 that it should never be brought up again in her presence, the officials said.

Alexei Woltornist, a spokesman for the department, said Wednesday that “it was never considered.”

It is not known whether Mr. Trump knew of the microwave weapon suggestion, but the discussion in the fall of 2018 underscored how Mr. Trump’s obsession with shutting down immigration has driven policy considerations, including his suggestions of installing flesh-piercing spikes on the border wall, building a moat filled with snakes and alligators and shooting migrants in the legs.

The Republican National Convention on Tuesday night featured a small citizenship naturalization ceremony at the White House clearly intended to try to soften the president’s image as a heartless opponent of immigrants. In 2018, the president’s hard immigration policies may well have backfired when suburban women recoiled at the images of children separated from their families and migrants in cages. A Democratic wave that November driven by such voters swept Republicans from control of the House.

But for his core supporters, Mr. Trump’s immigration agenda is again at the heart of his campaign, and the unrest roiling cities from Portland, Ore., to Kenosha, Wis., could give it more punch. The pitch: He has delivered on perhaps the central promise of his 2016 run, to effectively cut off America from foreigners who he said posed security and economic threats. Through hundreds of regulations, policy directives and structural changes, the president has profoundly reshaped the government’s vast immigration bureaucracy.

His campaign will also concentrate on making searing, and often false, attacks against former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., telling voters that the president’s rival wants to fling open the nation’s borders to criminals and disease-carrying immigrants who will take hard-working Americans’ jobs.


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Michael D. Shear